In a career that has now reached its thirtieth year, Tom Petty has never made a bad album. Some flirt with greatness, others simply deliver the goods (his last release, 2002’s The Last DJ, was actually one of his weaker efforts, weighed down by its grouchy theme), but the man’s consistency is pretty astounding. Highway Companion not only keeps his winning streak intact, it even rates above average by these standards.
The album is Petty’s third release under his own name, minus the Heartbreakers. Curiously, while his band is among rock’s sturdiest units, his previous two solo albums, Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, were arguably the best Tom Petty discs of all. Highway Companion doesn’t reach the towering heights of those two knockouts, but it shares their combination of stylistic range and rock-solid songcraft.
Tom Petty was always slightly hard to peg. When he first emerged from the Florida swamps, it wasn’t clear if he was a classic-rock stoner or an edgy New Waver (on his current tour, the opening acts include the Allman Brothers Band and the Strokes). Highway Companion comes out of the gate with this versatility intact — the opening ZZ Top/John Lee Hooker boogie of “Saving Grace,” the first single, is followed by the spare, delicate “Square One.” His songs are filled with images of motion, travel and the road; the sharpest writing appears in the cryptic, evocative “Down South,” describing a journey that includes plans to “see my daddy’s mistress,” “sell the family headstones” and “pretend I’m Samuel Clemens/Wear seersuckers and white linens.”
The biggest surprise is Jeff Lynne’s production. For once, the Electric Light Orchestrator (and Petty’s one-time bandmate in the Traveling Wilburys) avoids his signature airless walls of sound and keeps things relatively simple and clean. The album runs out of gas a bit toward the end, with a few too many songs in a row stuck in a midtempo Neil Young-ish lope. But for most of the ride, Highway Companion is worth the trip.