CD Review of Highway Companion by Tom Petty

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Highway Companion
starstarstarno starno star Label: American
Released: 2006
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In the world of economics, there is the law of diminishing returns, which states that each additional unit of input yields less and less additional output. The principle can be roughly applied to the world of music as well, where aging rockers like Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and, of course, Tom Petty, continue to create new music in the hopes of recapturing the magic of some of their earlier work. Petty’s previous effort, The Last DJ, was met with cold to lukewarm reviews, mostly due to the curmudgeonly attitude of three of the first four songs. Those songs dealt with the evils of the record industry, which is certainly a good topic for debate, but it clearly didn’t work as the basis for a record. Buried at the end of The Last DJ were two beautiful, optimistic songs – “Have Love Will Travel” and “Can’t Stop The Sun” – which were lost on most critics due to their sequential placement and the album’s overall tone.

Petty didn’t repeat the same mistakes on his 14th studio release, Highway Companion, opening the record with its most accessible track, “Saving Grace.” It has an infectious blues-rock riff and a pounding beat – meaning it will play well live – but it isn’t representative of the album as a whole. Petty once again collaborated with Jeff Lynne, who was brought in to produce the album after the former ELO bandleader (and Traveling Wilbury) produced Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open. Predictably, the record is devoted more to the acoustic than to the electric, so the hard-hitting “Saving Grace” is the exception, not the rule.

The second track, “Square One,” is a ballad in the vein of “Wildflowers,” marrying Petty’s distinct voice with the acoustic guitar. Songwriting has always been one of his strengths, and the pretty strumming complements the vocal progressions in both the verses and the chorus, which goes, “Square one, my slate is clear / Rest your head on me my dear / It took a world of trouble / It took a world of tears / It took a long time to get back here.” Clearly, the song is about redemption.

“Flirting with Time” also features the acoustic guitar, but this time it’s used at a faster tempo, making the track reminiscent of much of Into the Great Wide Open, including its simple, yet catchy chorus, giving the track its title. “Turn This Car Around” has a bridge similar to Open’s “All the Wrong Reasons,” but the track doesn’t really hit its stride until the 1:40 mark, when Petty bellows, “I’m going back!” This superb moment is only a tease, however, as the song quickly returns to the plodder it was before the breakthrough.

Conversely, “Big Weekend” is a fun ditty, written from the perspective of someone looking to hook up with some old friends for a good time. It’s another up-tempo acoustic number with an effective, cascading chorus, along with some fine noodling blues guitar, most likely provided by co-producer and underrated Heartbreakers’ guitarist, Mike Campbell.

The band is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so it seems odd that Petty decided to release Highway Companion as a solo album. He’s credited with writing all the songs and even played drums for the first time on a release, but Lynne’s fingerprints are all over the record. There’s enough on Highway Companion to get any Pettyhead excited, and it certainly lives up to its title (it sounds great in a car), but it doesn’t resonate like the work he and the Heartbreakers did in their golden age. There it is again: the good ol’ law of diminishing returns.

~John Paulsen