How much was I looking forward to Highway Companion? Enough to make a midnight run to Wal-Mart to have it at the precise moment of its release. That, boys and girls, is what we call obsession, devotion, and the lack of anything resembling a life. Not only did I buy it that night, I stayed up to listen to it from beginning to end. I will tell you something else - I would do it again. Some of you have lives. I have 1,000 CDs and a wishlist filled with 1,000 more.
The title and first single "Saving Grace" gave me the wrong idea about Highway Companion. The song and title got me thinking of driving music. You know - the kind of music you blare from your car stereo at 2 a.m. when you're young, stupid, and carefree. I was expecting the kind of music you crank on a road trip. Expectations can be a motherfucker. Highway Companion is about traveling the highways of life rather than (cue: Steppenwolf) cruising the interstate looking for adventure.
There was a lot of confusion created when my pre-conceived notion of what the album would be collided with the disc itself. That is why it has taken me so long to finally write this review. I am glad I waited. The question I have been grappling with is not whether or not I like Highway Companion but rather how much I like it.
"Saving Grace" opens the album and marries a great boogie rhythm, some great Mike Campbell slide work (Campbell being the lone Heartbreaker on the set), and a lyric whose themes are the journey, grace, redemption, and the highway. The album version is very good but this sounds like a song in need of the stage, a crowd, and the special energy only a great rock and roll band like The Heartbreakers can bring.
"Night Driver" is a standout if for no other reason than its wonderful use of electric piano. Petty picks his spots and uses it for accents throughout the song. In addition to those flourishes, his weary vocal adds color to lines like: "Me, I'm drifting home again/headlights in my eyes/fighting sleep with windows down/worn out from long goodbyes." The way the music and vocal inform the lyrics make the song work spectacularly.
The most fun-sounding song on the album is "Flirting With Time" and it would have sounded at home on Full Moon Fever alongside his great cover of "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better." It would have also worked well on Into The Great Wide Open right after "Learning to Fly." It is probably not a coincidence both of those albums were produced by Jeff Lynne, as is Highway Companion. The lyrics are not sunny but the melody is and that big, jangly chorus puts a good face on the inevitable: "You're flirting with time baby/flirting with time, and maybe time baby/is catching up with you."
"Big Weekend" is a fun, chugging song with the unmistakable sounds of Petty's shining Rickenbacker guitar. The clever "Down South" and "Turn This Car Around" use chords rarely heard in popular music these days while "Jack" has a surfer vibe to it complete with a rare Petty guitar lead. "Down South" might be the best story Petty has ever spun even if it, like many songs on HC, is a little weak in the chorus.
"Square One" is a jewel of a tender ballad that would sound more at home on Highway Companion were it sequenced elsewhere on the album. The line "Always had more dogs than bones" reminds me favorably of "And the feeling that it's all a lot of oysters, but no pearls" from Counting Crows' "A Long December."
Highway Companion is an album of subtleties and that might be its main drawback. The album straddles the line of being subtle and sedate. There are not a lot of big hooks and memorable choruses. Petty still sounds like he is holding back even on the most rollicking moments. Some very good midtempo, contemplative songs on the album are bogged down just a little because the most rocking songs on the album barely go beyond a nice shuffle or boogie. The album could have used a little more sonic variety.
After 30 years, it has become clear Tom Petty is incapable of making a truly bad record. I know a lot of people took the piss out of The Last DJ but that is their loss. A lot of bands would be damn lucky to never make a record any worse than that. Highway Companion, when stacked up against his other albums, compares nicely but it does not jump to the top of the list. How important is it for an artist to make their best album every time they release an album? Not very - at least when you are Tom Petty. Highway Companion is not the best album of his career but it will be one of the best of 2006.