Review Summary: Tom Petty slows down to reflect and nearly comes to a screechnig halt on this Jeff Lynne produced snooze fest. Bland, unimaginative, and sounding a little like "been there done that" this is sleepy Tom at his most tired. Good in small doses, nothing more.
Its been a long highway for Tom Petty. Having released his first album with The Heartbreakers 30 years ago and putting out most of his material with that band throughout three decades of making music, this album, the aptly titled Highway Companion, marks just the third time he has stepped away from his comfortable band of fellow rockers and stepped out on his own. And as with his previous two solo efforts (Full Moon Fever and the excellent Wildflowers, respectively) what we get is Tom Petty with a twist. Highway Companion, as with his other solo efforts, could easily be a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album if you consider the whole of their work. And members of that band find places on all his solo records, this one included. But what we get with Tom solo is different, nonetheless. Its an artist allowing himself to relax and breathe. And on this album that feeling comes through more than ever. Perhaps even a bit too much.
A concept album of sorts about moving around from place to place, the passage of time, and getting further down the highway in life and in age, the first track takes us on a personal journey that finds Tom questioning his own identity and the reasons he keeps moving on. You keep running to another place/To find that saving grace, he sings in Saving Grace as he and his capable band of musicians (including guitarist Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers) play an acoustic tinged mid-tempo shuffle behind him. Turn the volume up and this could be a ZZTop song circa 1976. But this album is not about volume, exactly. And the next few tracks bear that out as the soft and nearly solo-acoustic Square One comes hummimg along next with Petty picking gently on guitar and the band playing it hushed with brushed drums, slide guitar, and gentle chimes. A striking song about the journey some have to take back home before they are truly finally home, and the forgiveness from self and from others that may require, its a sad and reflective ballad that can stand comfortably alongside Toms better songs. Sqaure one my slate is clear/Rest your head on me my dear/It took a world of trouble/It took a world of tears/Took a long time/To get back here, Petty sings in his typical heartfelt manner. And the soft music and vocals work well to the songs advantage. Flirting With Time comes strumming along next, and its one of a a few Heartbreaker style tunes on the album with its jingle-jangle guitar and full vocal chorus. Thinking of an ex lover as he watches a lone coyote cross the road its a simple reminder to his ex love that time waits for no one, no matter how alone or how unattached you may be. Spread your fingers/Watch the sand fall through, he warns. You are flirtin with time, baby/Time is catching up with you. A wise and knowing song, perhaps. But also one of the lesser tracks on the album, as the music seems to not know where its going before the song just fades away after going nowhere. Down South follows and finds the songwriter heading for home and looking forward to making amends and seeing old friends. If I come to your door/Let me sleep on your floor/I will give you all I have and a little bit more, Tom sings in a generous offering that one returning home without much more then the clothes on his back might be compelled to make. Again not making a fuss musically, this is another mid-tempo offering that is truly unremarkable as a song, yet is somehow familiar enough to grasp and make something out of. Whether it be the sound of Petty songs gone past or simply the collective sound of decades of R&R gone past, Petty nails whatever it is on the head.
After the silly and almost cheesy Jack (shortest song on the album for good reason) the second half of the album kicks off with the plodding and dreary Turn This Car Around. And while Toms lyrics are as strong as ever, after the sing-song like Jack and mellow Going Down South the listener would hope for something a bit more musically infectious, if not exactly innovative or original. And this is where the album runs into a bit of trouble. Always a good songwriter and performer, Petty nonetheless simply lacks the strength of presence and musical prowess to sustain this sort of recording all the way through, and things start to sound dated. Big Weekend is a spirited enough acoustic strum along, but it recalls Pettys own 1989 hit Yer So Bad a little too closely and is sorely lacking in musical adornment/accompaniment. Following next is the pseudo Steely Dan like track Night Driver, and the album starts to become a bit of a snooze fest as Petty keeps drearily singing of times come and gone and returning again. And while the production of Jeff Lynne is solid and clean, its also spare and unobtrusive. Which is a strength for some, but exposes weaknesses in Tom. Known for his pop craftsmanship and lean production, here Lynne stays out of the way a bit too much as Petty starts to sink beneath the weight of his lackluster songwriting and sleepy performances. Always a talented songwriter as mentioned before, Tom is simply not on par with the greats. And he needs some help here with some pedestrian arrangements and perhaps some diverse musical accompaniment to lift things higher. That help unfortunately never comes. And this album of 12 simple, low key songs starts to feel very, very long.
After such a promising start but lagging middle, one would hope to tie this recording up we might get a strong finish. Unfortunately that is not to be as Petty and producer Lynne seem content to continue down this blase musical road to close things out with the painfully dull and cliched Damaged By Love, which finds Tom lamenting as he has done so many times before about a young woman stuck in tough emotional circumstances while the band plays sleepily behind him, the familiar sounding This Old Town, and finally the lush acoustic ballad This Golden Rose. Which sounds like an outtake from a long ago Beatles album played at half speed.
This reviewer does not want to leave you with the wrong impression. This is a good album. But it is not a good
album. Not even close. What it is as it turns out is a sleepy little collection of tunes that simply runs out of steam halfway through and never again throws anything of real interest at you. Seemingly with its best songs stacked on top and a concept that is thin at best, to say this album is a somewhat boring collection of songs performed by a bored sounding Petty would be a fairly accurate description of its contents. If Petty were the sort of songwriter with the gifts of Springsteen or Young or even John Mellencamp, and could have given us more quiet moments like the excellent second track Square One and more upbeat moments like Saving Grace, this record could have struck a balance that would of made it a fine and interesting album. But as it is we simply get a collection of Petty songs as dull and lazy as he has ever written. Perhaps a good listen in smaller doses on a Heartbreakers album or Tom solo records gone past, but to give us an entire album of this somewhat thin material simply falls short of the mark. Better luck next time.