'Hypnotic Eye' sees Tom Petty rock, rail
Tom Petty talks to USA TODAY about the creative process of recording his new album 'Hypnotic Eye.'
MALIBU, Calif. — Four years after the bluesy Mojo, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are roaring back with swagger and spleen on 13th studio album Hypnotic Eye, pugnacious rock 'n' roll that recalls their '70s vigor while carving a fresh groove.
"I wanted to go somewhere I haven't been," says Petty, 63. "We used a lot of distortion and lots of old amplifiers and guitars and keyboards to find the right sonic textures. I didn't want a lo-fi record, which is too easy for us. I wanted to make a hi-fi record that had an edge and excitement to it. You're not sure what you're hearing but it's different. I had to wash the palette clean and mix up new paints."
The result, out Tuesday, isn't a self-portrait but a "very observational record," he says. Titled after hypnotic eyes (TVs, computers, phones) that monopolize daily life, the 11 tracks examine avarice, materialism, religious hypocrisy and the imperiled American dream.
"These were the pressing issues around me," Petty says. "It's a moral album about what's happened to the human that's lost his humanity."
Nearly 40 years after his first recording, Petty still packs a punch, says Joe Levy, Billboard's editor at large.
"It's a more raw-sounding record than he's ever made," Levy says. Unlike his concisely crafted, radio-friendly early discs, "this is loud and fierce, the way he and The Heartbreakers sound live."
"The questions he's wrestling with aren't about personal betrayal," he adds. "They're about social betrayal, not specific politics but the American ideals of equality and cooperation, the idea that America is a place where people take care of each other and opportunity is not restricted by the wealth and power of a few."
In songs such as American Dream Plan B and Power Drunk, Petty expresses dismay at the erosion of longstanding values.
"Through these hypnotic eyes, we're told we're nothing if we don't have a mansion and dress like a movie star," he says. "I've never seen so much jewelry advertised. It's hard on a young person to not think that's the game. When I was growing up, people didn't expect to get a swimming pool.
"You can boil all the world's problems down to one word: greed," Petty says. "It's not greed on the part of poor people. It's these very wealthy people who make a lot of money and then live only to make more. The money starts to make them miserable because they're worried about somebody getting it. Then the money's not enough and they seek power. Very few people on this globe know how to responsibly handle power. It's gone into the hands of really shaky people who don't care who they hurt in their quest to have more money than they'll ever need."
Hypnotic Eye's jaundiced eye doesn't preclude hope for a rosier future, says Petty.
"The challenge is going to be maintaining our humanity alongside technology that is moving really fast," he says. "If you let some kid invent artificial intelligence that updates itself, then you're in trouble. You don't want to invent a bigger brain and put it in a bear."
He's also hopeful hypnotic eyes will help promote Hypnotic Eye.
"It's a different world," he says. "I'm struggling like everyone else just to let people know I have a record out. Huge artists put out records and I don't hear about it until months later. That weirds me out."