Highway Companion

Tom Petty

How do you tell the difference between a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers record and a Tom Petty solo record? Only those with exquisitely trained ears and the wherewithal to care about such things know for sure. On the surface, Petty's three solo records boost a more immediate presence; suffused with less jangle and a predominant acoustic backbone. Even so, with guitarist Mike Campbell as constant first mate, the Heartbreakers fit squarely into the equation, no matter how you look at. That being siad, the new solo Tom Petty solo album, Highway Companion could easily fall into either camp.

A step back from the intensity and venom of 2002’s The Last DJ, the last record with the Heartbreakers, Highway Companion is a suitable follow-up to the singer’s previous solo outing, 1994’s Wild Flowers. Jeff Lynne, who manned the controls for the highly acclaimed, best-selling Full Moon Fever, returns to the producer’s chair and miraculously steers clear of the frilly ELO-like embellishments, instead plunging headfirst into the girth of the songs. “Saving Grace,” the unpretentious lead-off single, starts off like a simple push n’ shove boogie between Bo Didley and George Thorogood before picking up steam and galloping into the sunset. From there, the road weaves and wanders over a highway strewn with peaks, valleys, and rest stops. “Square One,” in its earnest, unyielding manner, works as an effective catalyst for the uplifting “Flirting With Time” and the Mark Twain-inspired “Down South.” These numbers are effective set-ups for what follows.

“Jack” delivers a poignant, straight-ahead vocal ("You say what you want to Jack/I'm gonna get my baby back"), swimming upstream against a pseudo psychedelic rhythm that would make Arthur Lee proud. It neatly coalesces with “Turn This Car Around” and Big Weekend” — bearing all the trademarks of typical Petty meanderings. A beautiful, heartbreaking melody carries “Damaged By Love” to a dignified conclusion while “This Old Town,” without Benmont Tench's ivory-soaked flourishes wrapped around the verse, zeroes in on Petty seemingly isolated from the rest of the world. “Ankle Deep” could have probably been a Wilbury outtake, especially with Lynne navigating its course. But in the end, “The Golden Rose” has all the makings of a memorable Tom Petty closer— broad, Beatlesque strokes from the guitar, haunting keys, a taunt rhythm, and a fade to die for. As Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers blaze the trails for supposedly one last round, one can take consolation that Highway Companion will see to it that the journey ends on a high note.

~ Shawn Perry

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