Tom Petty back on track with Highway Companion
By Brian McCollum
The Providence Journal — Monday, July 31, 2006
Tom Petty | Highway Companion | (American Recordings)
Tom Petty’s clunky 2002 album The Last DJ was the sound of a veteran trying too hard. Conceived as an attack on the corporatization of rock ’n’ roll — not an unfamiliar stance for the iconoclastic Petty — it wound up a dry and preachy work, lacking the agile hooks and nuanced humor that have defined the best of his music during a three-decade career.
Highway Companion gets the 55-year-old musician firmly back on track, surely to the relief of the legion of devotees who see Petty as one of the last great hopes for traditional rock. Ruminative but wistful, mellow but not sluggish, the album finds Petty wielding a deft songwriting pen and maturing into his natural role as one of popular music’s wise elder statesmen.
Produced by longtime collaborator Jeff Lynne, Highway Companion is the third Petty release billed as a solo album. Mike Campbell, contributing elegantly understated lead guitar, is the only member of Petty’s Heartbreakers appearing throughout, on an album whose temperature is largely warm and acoustic.
Petty has long been a master of conveying simple imagery with a graceful poetic touch, and on Highway Companion, brimming with stellar verses, he is atop his game. Songs such as “Down South” and “Night Driver” are literary in their scope, as Petty paints the tonal colors with words as much as with music.
Musically, it’s an album of subtle treasures: the tense swamp blues coursing through “Saving Grace,” the deceptively rousing chorus of “Flirting with Time,” the lilting melody of the album-closing folk tale “The Golden Rose.”
There are few genuinely up-tempo moments throughout the dozen tracks — “Big Weekend” is as frisky as they get — but the album isn’t plodding. A steady ganja-groove motion, prevalent in much of his music over the years, dominates the pace on an album that’s good enough to sit side by side with Petty’s top work since his 1976 debut.