Chicago Tribune — July 30, 2006

Through the pain, music still Petty’s companion
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune — July 30, 2006

Coming off a devastating divorce and the death of longtime bandmate Howie Epstein, Tom Petty filters his regrets, recriminations and remorse into 12 deceptively gentle songs on “Highway Companion” (American).

On the 18th album of his career (and third solo disc apart from the Heartbreakers), Petty sings and plays most of the instruments himself with assists from producer Jeff Lynne (the architect of one of his most successful albums, “Full Moon Fever”) and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell.

Besides the ominous Bo Diddley groove of “Saving Grace” and the sprightly gallop of “Big Weekend,” the album is relatively subdued. The folk-tinged tunes range from hushed nocturnes (“Square One”) to subtly orchestrated chamber pop (“This Old Town”).

Petty sounds as if he’s nestled on a couch, alone with his guitar and his memories. He exorcises the past, the words often rueful, but he never strains. His voice is slightly weathered but warm and conversational, the melodies as easygoing as fresh water flowing from a spigot.

The 55-year-old singer never once sounds like a grumpy, put-upon rock star; instead a mature dignity hangs loosely around this album’s shoulders. Agitation is glimpsed in the bridge of “Turn This Car Around.” But Petty’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to transform pain into art, a kind of casual alchemy that sounds strangely comforting.

In the end, it’s the music that is the narrator’s “Highway Companion,” the friend who stretches out a hand and pulls him out of the wreckage.

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