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Tom Petty’s American Homecoming
By Bob Gendron
The Absolute Sound — September 2006
Tom Petty: Highway Companion. Jeff Lynne, Mike Campbell, and Petty, producers. American 44285 (CD and two-LP). | Music: ★★★★ Sonics: ★★★★
Harley-Davidson. Jack Daniel’s. Marshall Amplifiers. Fender Instruments. All are connected at the hip to rock ‘n’ roll and American tradition. To this list you can add Tom Petty. An artist that prototypically epitomizes pure American music, his recent deal with the American Records imprint couldn’t be more fitting. The move reunites the 55-year-old veteran with label owner and producer Rick Rubin, who helmed the boards for 1994’s Wildflowers, Petty’s timeless second solo album. Made only with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and longtime associate Jeff Lynne, the casual Highway Companion is Petty’s first solo effort since, its dozen songs revisiting many of his traditional themes — mystery, exploration, self-discovery, wandering, leisure.
In a great frame of mind, Petty has left behind the acrimony of 2002’s The Last DJ. Blacklisted by radio stations because of its condemnation of corporate broadcast logistics and unimaginative programmers, it remains Petty’s only album not to achieve gold status. Kicked off with a variation on John Lee Hooker’s universal “Boogie Chillin'” riff, the album-opening “Saving Grace” hums like a trusty Ford Mustang cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway, the protagonist running from place to place in search of inner peace and salvation. Outfitted with playful and vivid rhymes such as “Pretend I’m Samuel Clemens/Wear seer-sucker and white linens,” “Down South” witnesses more journeying, Petty reflecting as he plots a return to his roots, a prolonged vacation that sees him offer up his stock for a place to stay. “This Old Town” serves as a geographical metaphor for busted dreams, while the chugging “The Big Weekend” is the opposite, a kick-up-the-dust anthem for escaping life’s daily grind.
Throughout, Petty keeps arrangements simple and tempos steady, his nasally drawl in fine form. He turns inward on the bare-bones “Square One,” a lullaby that along with the mournful “Damaged by Love” recalls his Wildflowers moods. Jangling chords, bushy acoustic strumming, and casual beats supply the foundations for Petty’s rhythmic bridges and punchy, to-the-point refrains. Campbell’s lead-, pedal- and slide-guitar accents color the lyrical images, and Lynne’s bass keeps grooves grounded. Cozy and warmly inviting, the music blows like a summer breeze, country and rock elements lending looseness and snap. Petty sounds himself sounds rejuvenated, relieved of pressures and eager to relay soulful tales concerning drifting travels and weary experiences.
The producing collective takes a hands-off approach, the sonics glowing with golden hues and organic tones. Organ passages radiate; guitar strings have resonance and weight; instruments remain individually separated. The soundstage is open, wide, and airy, the brightly chiming intro to “Ankle Deep” evocative of a reunion of Traveling Wilburys members. At the finish of the album-closing “Golden Rose,” a keyboard echo fades into the distance, the music, pulling safely and soundly into the garage for the night.