Friday, March 26, 2010

Tom Petty 15: Highway Companion

By now it should be clear that a Tom Petty solo album isn’t going to sound radically different from a Heartbreakers album, but we should still notice that they’re not around. His third such release, Highway Companion, at least restricts the guests to just Mike Campbell on lead guitar (naturally) and returns the producer credit to Jeff Lynne.
Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like a Jeff Lynne production, though with the drums handled by Petty himself—the jury’s still out on if they’re canned or live—it’s a moot point. “Flirting With Time” and “Ankle Deep” are the closest to that hit sound, though our hero’s voice is more off-pitch than ever. The homemade feel of the album is best displayed on “Jack”, which sounds like it took longer to play than to write, but it does have an excellent nod to Love’s “Bummer In The Summer” where the choruses should go. “Night Driver” has an intriguing mood, but it happens two tracks after he’d already threatened to “Turn This Car Around”.
Tom hasn’t been as prolific as he gets older, and we’re starting to think he either works better faster or has run out of new ideas. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that really leaps above the rest. There aren’t any home runs of the like that distinguished even such so-so albums as Long After Dark and Echo. To make matters worse, he’s even recycling his own songs; “Big Weekend” is “Yer So Bad” meets “To Find A Friend”, and “Damaged By Love”, pretty as it is, uses a Byrds song title as an opening line to disguise that he’s rewritten “Walls”.
Highway Companion could have been a lot worse, but it just isn’t memorable. It also wasn’t much of a hit, making the release a year later of a so-called “Special Edition”—two new songs plus demos of two album tracks—more insulting to diehard fans than anything else.

Tom Petty Highway Companion (2006)—2
2007 Special Edition: same as 2006, plus 4 extra tracks


  1. Why do you like Tom Petty, Wardo?

    Your average rating for his albums is barely above 3, he's ol' Three-Chord Tom, he frequently worked with The Devil Jeff Lynne, his voice is off-pitch voice and the man could use time on a Stairmaster®. He seems mediocre at best based on your 18 reviews of his non-Wilbury, non-Mudcrutch output.

    Why do you like him or, if you don't, why give him so much attention?


  2. Admittedly, his quality has dwindled over the years. 3 still means "good", if not "great". I still get enjoyment out of Damn The Torpedoes, Hard Promises and She's The One, followed by Wildflowers and (most of) Southern Accents.

    But his albums don't always do his talent justice. He puts on a great live show, as we shall soon see.

  3. “Uh-oh, Jeff Lynne” – I think a lot of fans had that reaction when this came out. Fortunately, Petty kept him under control this time, with acoustic guitar dominating most of the arrangements and a minimum of vocal and keyboard overdubs.

    I think that you’re a bit hard on this album. It’s at least as good as "The Last DJ", although it’s very different. For one thing, the songs have some great, if simple, grooves, whether fast (“Saving Grace”, “Big Weekend”) or slow (“Down South”, “Turn this Car Around”). The ballads are as touching as ever (“Square One”, “Damaged by Love”). “Flirting with Time” has a genuinely nice callback to the psychedelic 60’s with the chorus and solo, although I do have to concede your beef about the "Full Moon Fever" type drum sound with this song in particular. I don’t think there’s a single drum fill on the entire album. “Down South” is yet another delightful expression of Tom’s whimsical side, yet also manages to be moving. “Jack” is a toss off, but still fun. Reminds me of Nirvana, of all people.

    As for the charge of repeating himself – well, Tom pretty much always worked with the same basic template, tweaking it with each album. So, some songs are going to inevitably remind one of other songs. That doesn’t bother me too much. Tom was smart to restrict the original album to LP length – the style may have gotten monotonous if extended to CD length. Overall, as far as 21st century Petty is concerned, I’d recommend this one to new fans first over those albums that preceded or followed it.