American Recordings, 2006
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/08/2006
Not because of the laconic
Highway Companion, Petty’s first solo album sans Heartbreakers since 1994’s Wildflowers and third overall, is dependably solid, a lineup of tunes that chug and jangle and pulse and fall back with a practiced ease born of a lifetime of music-making. The album’s theme, such as it is, is baldly stated in the title – this is traveling music, energetic in places but more commonly ambling, chummy and unassuming.
Working once again with fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne (see also ELO) and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, Petty delivers 55 years’ worth of road-weary wisdom stretched out across 12 tracks. There isn’t a lot of variety here in terms of tone or instrumentation -- Lynne’s trademark sonic palette of acoustic rhythm guitar, rockabilly bass, jangly leads and lush harmonies doesn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation -- yet most of these songs still manage to offer something special somewhere along the way.
In the case of opener “Saving Grace,” it’s the familiar gruffness of the chugging Bo Diddley/ZZ Top beat that anchors this appealing rocker. On “Flirting With Time,” it's a great singalong chorus, and on “Down South” it's the intimacy with which Petty writes about his Southern roots.
Moving along, “Turn This Car Around” leads with a thrumming verse/chorus carrying a hint of menace, before paying off in a terrific bridge drenched with echo and guitars that manage to be jangly and defiant all at once. “Night Driver” is suitably dreamy; and “Ankle Deep” gives you a classic first verse leading into one of Petty’s better story-songs.
Petty has always been a better writer than editor of his own work, and this disc is no exception. Toward the end there are several tunes that tend to blur together, thanks in no small part to the dogged consistency of Lynne’s production. But Petty’s talent is undeniable; even an otherwise unremarkable tune like “Damaged By Love” gets lit up by shining lyrical nuggets like “She’s got nothing to hide / And she hides it so well.”
“Big Weekend” sums things up nicely mid-album with this twinkling beauty of a chorus -- “I need a big weekend, kick up the dust / A big weekend, if you don’t run, you rust.” There’s no rust on Petty. Highway Companion might not blaze any new trails, but it’s a reliably amiable and entertaining piece of work from one of the most dependable rock and roll craftsmen of the past 30 years.