Petty still knows the ropes of the road
By Jim Abbott
Orlando Sentinel — July 25, 2006
This superstar teams with old friend Jeff Lynne to produce yet another fine album.
Tom Petty has been churning out songs for so long that it’s remarkable there’s still a sense of expectation about his new solo album, Highway Companion.
Any mere mortal might be satisfied with membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a catalog of classic songs that ensures a long, happy ride into the sunset.
Instead, at age 55, Petty just keeps working. And the results are strong enough at times to rival his signature hits. In stores today, Highway Companion is Petty’s first album on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. It teams Petty with frequent studio collaborator (and fellow Traveling Wilbury) Jeff Lynne, who produced these dozen songs with Petty and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell.
Lynne, of course, also produced Full Moon Fever (1989) and Into the Great Wide Open (1991), so he knows how to coax the most out of Petty’s material. Here, the mood is comfortable, almost gentle at times, but not without emotional tension and a rock edge that evokes Petty’s Rubin-produced Wildflowers.
“Turn This Car Around,” a song that Petty has previewed on recent tours, recalls the gritty, acoustic blues of “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Campbell, who handles lead guitar on all but one song, flavors the track with slide solos that sound like a human voice.
Although Highway Companion is a solo album, Petty also receives instrumental and vocal assistance from Lynne, whose vintage keyboard sound is the counterpoint for the chugging guitars on the opening “Saving Grace.” His contributions are subtle, such as the autoharp behind the straightforward rock of “Ankle Deep.”
It takes time to fully appreciate that song, as well as the album’s deceptively simple closer, “The Golden Rose.” All the songs are tinged with loneliness, a sense of longing for security and consciousness of passing time. Often, Petty sets the mood with understated brilliance.
“Square One,” a sweet acoustic ballad, ranks among the most beautiful songs that he has ever written: “It took a world of trouble, it took a world of tears, It took a long time to get back here.”
Another highlight is “Flirting with Time,” which shows that Petty hasn’t lost the knack for summoning his rock influences and cobbling them into something that sounds old and new at the same time. He does it again on the dreamy “Damaged by Love,” built on a rudimentary four-chord progression seemingly plucked from a Roy Orbison song.
“Living free is gaining on me,” Petty sings at one point, reflecting on his history. On Highway Companion, Petty’s long road makes for a memorable trip.