All The Petty Horsepower
By Jim Farber
New York Daily News — Sunday, July 23, 2006
TOM PETTY | “Highway Companion” | (American Recordings)
Tom Petty’s new album finds him on the run – from time, reality, routine, inebriation – from everything that holds him down or, conversely, threatens him with too much freedom.
It’s an itchy feeling Petty’s out to capture, a flinch from his own skin. Logically, he chose to explore these travels of the inner life through a metaphor musicians know well: the road.
The lyrics to “Highway Companion” feature more car images than a classic Bruce Springsteen album. The good news is, Petty has gunned his creative engines as well.
After several creatively and commercially routine releases – 2002’s bitter anti-corporate rant “The Last DJ” and 1999’s slight “Echo” – Petty sounds hungry and focused again. The new album offers his most honed lyrics and finest tunes since his last fruitful era, back around “Full Moon Fever” (’89) and “Into the Great Wide Open” (’91).
It can’t be mere coincidence that “Highway” is also his first album produced by Jeff Lynne since those twin peaks. Petty recorded the album with just Lynne and the closest of his Heartbreakers: guitarist Mike Campbell. While the line can sometimes seem arbitrary between Petty’s full-band albums and his solo works (of which this is the third), on “Highway” the lone credit makes sense. This time, it’s especially personal.
Petty makes that clearest on the breathtaking “Square One,” which features the songwriter’s most gorgeously deliberate melody since “The Waiting.” The result allows him to slowly delineate lyrics that poetically address the complex quest to see things simply.
Another melody – for “Flirting With Time” – has such a shimmering mid-’60s feel, I thought it must be a cover. It’s not, though much of Petty’s music here takes obvious influence from the work of others, especially Dylan’s recent work. Another song, “Jack,” quotes old Who (which makes it seem wise, rather than magnanimous, that Petty chose not to sue the Red Hot Chili Peppers for their recent recycle of his old song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”)
What makes even Petty’s most obvious new tunes feel fresh is his newly engaged performance. He just sounds more present this time. Several songs find him trolling his past in the South to beat fresh sense into his life. If all the scurrying around in the lyrics expresses displacement, worry and avoidance, Petty concludes that “if you don’t run, you rust.” Performances like these drive home the point: They make restlessness stirring.