Petty turns inward on new ‘Highway’
By Sarah Rodman
Boston Globe — July 25, 2006
Tom Petty knows from the road.
On “Highway Companion,” his third solo album and 14th studio release overall, the Florida-born rocker who has criss crossed the world for the past 30 years travels down musical avenues to the past, ruminates on his path to the future, and contemplates where he is now.
In 12 elegant, spare, and instantly singable tracks, you can hear the 55-year-old recognizing that the sands in the hourglass are more plentiful in the bottom than the top. “This could well be your last stand,” he sings on the lightly swinging “Flirting With Time.” But instead of sounding mournful in the face of his mortality, Petty offers reassurance, satisfied resignation, and a bit of optimism.
Nowhere is that more true than on the slinky boogie of the first single, “Saving Grace.” With a rolling John Lee Hooker-style guitar groove, Petty openly questions his identity but stays in the hunt for the elusive answers, figuring a bluesy shuffle and light harmonies are good allies in the search.
The sigh of contentment that is “Square One” finds the singer, over an almost lullaby-style acoustic guitar, assessing his regrets and gladly finding he’s only had a few. He ties up loose ends and revisits his roots in the lyrics of “Down South,” stages a romantic rescue mission on the British Invasion cool of “Jack,” and shakes off the dust in the playful shuffle “Big Weekend.”
Longtime friend Jeff Lynne produces here, but “Highway Companion” sounds more like a Rick Rubin affair. Petty’s familiar slouchy vocals are front and center throughout, and Lynne and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell , the only musicians besides Petty (who plays drums!) on the disc, provide the lightest of accompaniment, giving the album an intimate sensibility better suited to lazy, dreamy, late-night cruising on back roads than to rocking down the highway.
A couple of the tracks feel almost too light — like the nonsensical “Ankle Deep” — and the unremittingly moderate tempos eventually have you crying out for one really good, urgent rocker. But as the album closes with “Golden Rose” — a waltz-time sea chantey you can picture Captain Jack Sparrow drowning his rum-soaked sorrows in — there is a sense of completeness that makes you feel that if by some tragedy of fate this was the last Tom Petty album, it would be a fitting capper.
While the songs are more reflective than ripsnorting, they remain a worthy addition to Petty’s canon and a great companion no matter how far down the highway the listener happens to travel.