Review by Jaan Uhelszki
The San Francisco Chronicle — July 23, 2006
TOM PETTY | HIGHWAY COMPANION | AMERICAN/WARNER BROS. | $18.98
Tom Petty’s third solo album, “Highway Companion,” is filled with paradox, restlessness and a near-obsession with the passage of time, created by an artist who perceives more road behind him than before him. At 55, he’s right. But what’s key here is that he’s not sublimating his fears of aging but using them to inflame these songs in a way that he hasn’t since his first solo album, 1989’s “Full Moon Fever.” Every word counts in his quest to figure out his place in a radically changing world. This disc seems to finish the narrative arc that Petty began in 1989, when he was singing about “Free Fallin’.” Here, he’s dealing with what happens when that momentum stops. Isaac Newton’s first law of motion proposes that a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, and Petty seems to be battling those forces with a vengeance. But it’s not clear what his bete noire is — his own fretful demons about getting old and losing his place in rock’s pantheon, or a diminishing marketplace. It’s no secret that the last couple of Heartbreakers albums weren’t the commercial blockbusters that their earlier works were, but this album could change that. Petty (left, performing in June in St. Paul, Minn.) has reached down into the deepest part of his battered Southern soul and returned with a frank, poetic assessment of the things that go bump in his own dark night, crafting songs full of worry, prophecy and then an elegant acceptance of his choices. What ties all the songs together is that concept of motion — be it running (“Saving Grace”), driving (“Turn This Car Around,” “Night Driver”), riding a horse (“Ankle Deep”) or riding a train (“The Golden Rose”). One thing is clear: Petty is no longer “Running Down a Dream” but rather trying to hold on to one.