By: David Schultz
In substance, Tom Petty's solo albums, Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, have contained some of his most memorable and intimate songs. While his Heartbreaker-less material has been lyrically different, musically it's never been a dramatic shift from the distinct style he's created over the past thirty years. Even though Jeff Lynne's production touches are noticeable, the Florida native's latest solo album, Highway Companion, follows the same formula as his previous ones: warm, personal songs sung in an unmistakable, wizened nasal voice over jangling Byrds-era guitar riffs.
Anyone expecting a rowdy, partying album in line with the atmosphere Petty & The Heartbreakers have been creating on their recent summer tour will be disappointed by Petty's latest. The dozen songs comprising Highway Companion are not road songs to accompany a freewheeling trip down a rowdy freeway a la "Running Down A Dream" but rather a companion to the uncertainties and insecurities encountered on the highway of life. Unlike Petty's prior solo efforts which seemed geared towards a more mainstream audience, Highway Companion feels more like a labor of love. Missing the arena anthems Petty fans have come to love, his latest aims not for the gut but for the heart.
While thematically introspective, the album does have its upbeat moments: built around a bluesy John Lee Hooker guitar-boogie based riff, "Saving Grace" strongly kicks off the album and the heavier guitar work on "Jack" and "This Old Town" are greatly aided by the vocal cadence Petty mastered on songs like "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "You Don't Know How It Feels." In contrast, Petty's strumming of an acoustic guitar, though bordering on lazy, suitably matches the ruminations found on the sparse "Square One" and "Damaged By Love."
In bringing these more personal songs to life, Petty has turned to longtime friend Jeff Lynne. While Lynne's production results in the inclusion of some anachronistic riffs that seem more appropriate on an ELO album, his participation also results in the recreation of some old Traveling Wilbury magic, with "Big Weekend," a song about the necessity of being able to cut loose once in a while, sounding like a lost Wilbury song.
Petty seems to be bringing his fans down the same path Bruce Springsteen brought his. No longer teeming with the unbridled energy of youth, Petty's thoughts have become more reflective and introspective; the inevitable result of growing old. Anyone willing to travel down this road with Petty will find great enjoyment in Highway Companion; those who still wish for Petty to be running down dreams or feeling born to rebel may need to look elsewhere.