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Music Review: Highway Companion – Tom Petty

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How much was I looking forward to Highway Companion?  Enough to make a midnight run to Wal-Mart to have it at the precise moment of its release.  That, boys and girls, is what we call obsession, devotion, and the lack of anything resembling a life.  Not only did I buy it that night, I stayed up to listen to it from beginning to end.  I will tell you something else – I would do it again.  Some of you have lives.  I have 1,000 CDs and a wishlist filled with 1,000 more. 

The title and first single "Saving Grace" gave me the wrong idea about Highway Companion.  The song and title got me thinking of driving music.  You know – the kind of music you blare from your car stereo at 2 a.m. when you're young, stupid, and carefree.  I was expecting the kind of music you crank on a road trip.  Expectations can be a motherfucker.  Highway Companion is about traveling the highways of life rather than (cue: Steppenwolf) cruising the interstate looking for adventure. 

There was a lot of confusion created when my pre-conceived notion of what the album would be collided with the disc itself.  That is why it has taken me so long to finally write this review.  I am glad I waited.  The question I have been grappling with is not whether or not I like Highway Companion but rather how much I like it.

"Saving Grace" opens the album and marries a great boogie rhythm, some great Mike Campbell slide work (Campbell being the lone Heartbreaker on the set), and a lyric whose themes are the journey, grace, redemption, and the highway. The album version is very good but this sounds like a song in need of the stage, a crowd, and the special energy only a great rock and roll band like The Heartbreakers can bring.

"Night Driver" is a standout if for no other reason than its wonderful use of electric piano.  Petty picks his spots and uses it for accents throughout the song.  In addition to those flourishes, his weary vocal adds color to lines like: "Me, I'm drifting home again/headlights in my eyes/fighting sleep with windows down/worn out from long goodbyes."  The way the music and vocal inform the lyrics make the song work spectacularly.

The most fun-sounding song on the album is "Flirting With Time" and it would have sounded at home on Full Moon Fever alongside his great cover of "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better."  It would have also worked well on Into The Great Wide Open right after "Learning to Fly."  It is probably not a coincidence both of those albums were produced by Jeff Lynne, as is Highway Companion.  The lyrics are not sunny but the melody is and that big, jangly chorus puts a good face on the inevitable:  "You're flirting with time baby/flirting with time, and maybe time baby/is catching up with you."

"Big Weekend" is a fun, chugging song with the unmistakable sounds of Petty's shining Rickenbacker guitar.  The clever "Down South" and "Turn This Car Around" use chords rarely heard in popular music these days while "Jack" has a surfer vibe to it complete with a rare Petty guitar lead.  "Down South" might be the best story Petty has ever spun even if it, like many songs on HC, is a little weak in the chorus.

"Square One" is a jewel of a tender ballad that would sound more at home on Highway Companion were it sequenced elsewhere on the album.  The line "Always had more dogs than bones" reminds me favorably of "And the feeling that it's all a lot of oysters, but no pearls" from Counting Crows' "A Long December." 

Highway Companion is an album of subtleties and that might be its main drawback.  The album straddles the line of being subtle and sedate.  There are not a lot of big hooks and memorable choruses.  Petty still sounds like he is holding back even on the most rollicking moments.  Some very good midtempo, contemplative songs on the album are bogged down just a little because the most rocking songs on the album barely go beyond a nice shuffle or boogie.  The album could have used a little more sonic variety.

After 30 years, it has become clear Tom Petty is incapable of making a truly bad record.  I know a lot of people took the piss out of The Last DJ but that is their loss.  A lot of bands would be damn lucky to never make a record any worse than that.  Highway Companion, when stacked up against his other albums, compares nicely but it does not jump to the top of the list.  How important is it for an artist to make their best album every time they release an album?  Not very – at least when you are Tom Petty.  Highway Companion is not the best album of his career but it will be one of the best of 2006.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • Mark Saleski

    nice review. i’m actually not super familiar with the other Petty solo releases, but i know what you’re getting at by this record’s “laid-back-ness”.

    still, i liked the sparse quality of it. especially with much of today’s super-compressed rock sounds.

  • DJRadiohead

    Wildflowers was a solo record produced by Rick Rubin and it had more diversity in terms of the kinds of songs on the album. Wildflowers is also probably the best thing he has ever done. FMF probably had a little bit better blend of tempos and styles.

    The laid-back approach does not bother me and it works here because the songs are mostly good-to-great. I do think the album would have been better served with a little more diversity but there is nothing wrong with HC. It’s a more meditative album than I had expected but I like listening to it.

  • Mark Saleski

    i’ll have to get those other two records….after i get the first three Cheap Trick records and after…..

  • Vern Halen

    Dead on review. The songs are well written, but mostly move along at a walk, when there could have been at least a couple that jogged, and a couple that sprinted.

  • Tom Johnson

    Great piece, DJRadiohead. I love this album. I put it right up there with the Lynne-produced albums, which I listen to a lot and, aside from Wildflowers, I just don’t find myself wanting to listen to much else of Petty’s – this sound is what I want and need from him. I’m very glad to get more from him and that it’s just not a rehash of what he’s done before. A definite favorite of the year, and I’ve already got a growing list of those . . .

  • DJRadiohead

    Thanks, guys. I was talking about this album with a friend last night and he said he read a review that said it was a combination of Wildflowers and Nebraska. I thought that was an interesting comparison. The characters in this album, something I didn’t touch on as much as I might have liked, all seem to be retracing their steps. I think there is a very heartland/Nebraska vibe to it. It is interesting, anyway.

  • Martin Lav

    This is a very solid album that tends to grow on you. I don’t feel the hooks so much, but I really like it’s easy style and professional delivery. Although not as evocative as Neil Youngs Harvest Moon, I’d say the mood and style is sandwiched right in the middle/later years of both these exceptional artists varied careers and are quite similar.

  • tink

    Somehow this release got past my radar…I can see (eerrr, read?) that was a HUGE mistake on my part.

    Anxious to go check it out…


  • DJRadiohead

    Tink, I think you will like this one. It stands strong in his catalog- a very strong album.

  • Connie Phillips

    This article has been placed at the websites, a site affiliated with about 12 newspapers.

    One such site is here.

  • Connie Phillips

    Congrats! A link to this article now appears on our Myspace Profile page.

  • DJRadiohead

    Thanks, Connie!

  • tink

    Oh…I am definitely going to…have been a Petty fan (solo and w/Heartbreakers) fan since the late 70’s when the band used to play on the Sunset Strip. Of course, I was only 3 years old then…

    Really, TP has never let me down before…and from what you say, he won’t this time either!!!