By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


September 5, 2006

Tom Petty
'Highway Companion'
American Recordings
Grade: B

On his 30th anniversary as a recording artist, Tom Petty, always a fan of the open road, takes us for a ride. But it's not a road trip with a cooler full of brew and the ragtop tucked back. This is a night drive, a bit hypnotic, when the mind wanders down the various two-lane blacktops of a cluttered life while the car eats up miles.

Petty, who turns 56 next month, was snarling and bitter when we last heard him, with the Heartbreakers on "The Last DJ" (2002). That diatribe against the music business rocked harder than "Highway Companion," his third solo album, but was less effective.

Petty is in a reflective mood here, abetted by Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and frequent collaborator Jeff Lynne, who handles the bass and co-produces. And it's a pleasure to report that Lynne uses a simple and sympathetic touch, avoiding the dense, layered sound he used with his Electric Light Orchestra, the Traveling Wilburys and many other sound-alike projects.

"Companion" rocks off the line with the instant classic "Saving Grace," a John Lee Hooker-style boogie in which Petty is "passing sleeping cities ... flyin' over backyards ... running for another place/To find that saving grace."

After the love ballad "Square One," Petty scores with a pair of influence-infused songs. The '60s-drenched "Flirting With Time" is a consideration of aging that boasts an irresistible chorus and sounds like the Outsiders meeting the Byrds' Roger McGuinn.

And returning home "Down South," Florida-native Petty adopts a Bob Dylan cadence that recalls "If Not for You" and contains the wonderful lines: "Create myself down south/Impress all the women/Pretend I'm Samuel Clemens/Wear seersucker and white linens."

The pace slows some after that, and the last third of the CD suffers from too similar tempos. But arresting images continue: closing up a house and settling a family's affairs; leaving a lover and driving home alone in the dark; returning to a town to find that it has changed.

And while Petty's lyrics are largely ambiguous, inviting emotional rather than intellectual response, they are augmented by delicate melodies, hooky choruses and dynamic but restrained playing.

"Highway Companion" may not be quite up to the lofty standard set by his earlier solo efforts, "Full Moon Fever" (1989, also produced by Lynne) and "Wildflowers" (1994). But there's no such thing as a bad Petty album, and "Companion" hints that Petty may stay more in the present next time out.

As he says in the ironic "Big Weekend":

"I can work/I can travel/ Sleep anywhere/Cross every border/With nothing to declare/You can look back babe/But it's best not to stare."