Review by Tom Groening
Bangor Daily News — September 15, 2006
“Highway Companion” (American) — Tom Petty
In late middle age, after a rough personal spell, Tom Petty is on the road. It’s not a journey of discovery or conquest he’s singing of in his third solo record, “Highway Companion,” but of resignation, regret and returning, a humbler man, to his roots.
Petty’s strong suits have always been the easygoing guitar grooves and good-natured Southern drawl he brought to his tunes, and both are evident here. But for the first time, he has added something more personal.
Instead of “Running down a dream, that never would come to me,” as he sang on his first solo effort, 1989’s “Full Moon Fever,” Petty observes that “Livin’ free is gainin’ on me, can’t keep ahead of my dreams,” on Highway Companion’s “This Old Town.”
Petty hasn’t exactly gone confessional in this collection; lyrics are still mostly on the surface of things. But the emotional context he sets seems to be the result of some soul-searching.
The record is full of traveling imagery, most of it propelling the narrator to places — geographical and emotional — that he doesn’t necessarily choose to visit. In “Saving Grace,” the terrific single, the scene is set:
I’m passing sleeping cities
Fading by degrees
Not believing all I see to be so
I’m flyin’ over backyards
Country homes and ranches
Watching life between the branches below
“Highway Companion” is not a descent into bitterness and despair. Sonically, it’s as pleasant sounding as many of Petty’s previous work, recalling the fun sound achieved on 1988’s “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1,” which is not surprising, given it was produced by Petty’s fellow Wilbury Jeff Lynne.
The added lyrical depth coupled with ear-friendly tunes makes for one of Petty’s strongest offerings yet.