Highway Companion – Tom Petty
American Recordings 44285-2
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the review, let me give you a brief inside look at the world of reviewing. Many times a music journalist//hack/snob spends hours listening to a particular album in order to decipher the lyrical and instrumental treasures hidden within its data. Sometimes, an accompanying press release does that job by revealing details of what went into the writing and recording on a personal and professional level. This can include explanations of the meanings behind the tracks.
If you’d like to play catch up to such insider information, go read the July 13th Rolling Stone interview with Tom Petty prior to listening to his third solo album, Highway Companion. The short version, for those who don’t own a copy, is that one will find someone who has come out of his dark period with a new love in his life, yet remains emotionally fragile.
Now, put the CD in the tray and press play.’ You’re ready.
Being the type of songwriter who’s not into making an album that’s insufferably indulgent, Petty’s mental state doesn’t drag us into the depths of self-pity (“Night Driver,” “Damaged By Love”). Only Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell and Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra, The Traveling Wilburys) worked on the album, playing multiple instruments as well as co-producing with Petty. Because of this, the music has a freshness and intimacy gained by the space residing between the notes (the bluesy pace of “Saving Grace,” the waltz-meets- Beatles blueprint on “The Golden Rose”). With Petty on drums, the loose approach is even more apparent. His playing recalls the days when Stan Lynch held that spot with the Heartbreakers.
But, what’s possibly the most important information regarding Highway Companion is that the majority of it doesn’t sound like a Jeff Lynne production. Don’t know what that is? Listen to George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and the Wilburys’ releases. They all share an avalanche of compression, the same acoustic guitar jangle and a snare drum that sounds like a screen door slamming shut. That awful typical sound that he induces out of each act barely appears here, which makes the proceedings so much better.
In the same Rolling Stone interview Petty comments on the controversy involving the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California” being similar to his “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” He brushes it off, offering the knowledge that musicians have copped of each other throughout history. Those words take additional meaning when you can hear the spirits of Bob Dylan and The Who running through “Down South” and “Jack,” respectively.
Petty has played “Turn This Car Around” live with the Heartbreakers. There’s enough strong material on “Highway Companion” that deserves to be heard live as well. But, just because it would be nice to see what his band can do with more of these songs, making this as a solo record proved to be a good decision. The record has a revelatory tone that would get lost amidst all the extra instrumentation. In its compact 43 minutes it briefly exposes us to Petty’s world, one that’s captained by someone who grew up on classic 60s radio where the power and nobility of a song structure has a value that combines universality with entertainment and heart with melody.