The Wife to Whom I'm Married and I are apparently in exclusive company. We are, it seems, the only two people on planet earth who love Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' Into the Great Wide Open. Sure, a lot of people like the song but they love to take the piss out of the album. Most of the album's detractors, from what I can tell, pin the failings on album producer Jeff Lynne.
Petty fans had to be tearing at their clothes with the news he was once again making a solo record with Lynne if one accepts the premise the ex-ELO frontman ruined Great Wide Open. It is a ridiculous premise. Great Wide Open has great songs with a unified sound and that makes it at the very least a really good album even if it is not quite a classic.
The counter to that is Lynne's production was too fussy and too mannered and it left fingerprints all over the record. I dare anyone to bitch about Lynne after listening to "Saving Grace."
Talk about a Highway Companion. This song screams to be played in a car stereo – it just makes more sense that way. This song makes more sense if you saw Petty & The Heartbreakers terrific performance on Soundstage. Mixed in with the band's classics were covers of Chicago blues and early rock 'n' roll standards. Petty is reaching back to his roots on "Saving Grace" and he sounds completely comfortable. Maybe it is because he never strayed too far from them in the first place. Maybe it is because as he reaches the 30th anniversary since releasing his first album he understands now more than ever what he does best.
"Saving Grace" is the first single off Petty's upcoming disc, Highway Companion. This is barebones rock 'n' roll: guitar, organ, bass, drum, and some terrific slide guitar work from Mike Campbell. If ZZ Top covered Canned Heat's "On the Road Again" it might sound like this. Three and a half minutes, get in, get out. This is a song written for the AM radio era. It would have sounded great then. It still does.
The song opens with a chugging, boogie riff and Petty's distinctive vocal. Slowly, new elements are added to augment the guitar and vocal for the first minute of the song at which point bass and drums pick up the low end and the song finds its groove.
The first line of the song: "I'm passing sleeping cities." The highway. Petty has written about "Kings Road" and "King's Highway." I wonder how many sleeping cities he has passed in 30 years on the road. The journey, grace and redemption, the highway- these are staples of the great rock songbook. Dylan, Springsteen, Petty – they have all traveled that lonely highway searching for something.
If "Saving Grace" is any indication, Highway Companion is another winner in a career that has had a lot of them.