While the cards are all still the same, Highway Companion is Tom Petty reshuffling the deck, as has been the case with his previous two “solo” albums. I use the term solo loosely, since (and no disrespect is meant toward the excellent Heartbreakers) it has always been Petty’s show from the very beginning.
Within the past decade or two, Petty had settled into a nice comfortable groove, satisfying (and maybe satisfied) in his consistency. Much of his music from 1987’s Full Moon Fever on was interchangeable from album to album. While a first listen to a Tom Petty album stopped feeling revolutionary or even novel, there was a certain pleasure in having expectations constantly fulfilled. There would be no remix album or forays into Afro-Cuban rhythm working their way into the repertoire.
Yet the misstep belatedly materialized. 2002’s woeful The Last DJ was a concept album that introduced a bitter, codgerly Petty complaining about how money and corporations destroyed rock ‘n’ roll. Roughly thirty years late in picking up on this trend, The Last DJ also failed by bemoaning what an anachronism Tom and his Heartbreakers’ success has been, when that very stubbornness was quite possibly the only thing that made this bar band truly special.
Conversely, Highway Companion contains the most clear-eyed and hopeful songs that Petty has written in memory. Coming off of the longest break between albums in his career, the Petty on Highway Companion is suitably rested. While this is the first time in fifteen years that a Petty album cover doesn’t contain his likeness, the songwriting and voice sound as personal and intimate as ever. Jeff Lynne’s touch is unusually gentle, and he lets this remain Tom’s album. Mike Campbell’s slide guitar makes a strong appearance, but it’s such a familiar element within Petty’s musical universe that I couldn’t imagine its absence being acceptable.
Lyrically, the wry cynicism that has become a trademark of his is largely absent, and this newfound piece of mind is as much a thematic cornerstone of Highway Companion as the travel imagery that permeates the lyrics. On the elegant “Square One,” Petty sings, “It took a world of trouble, took a world of tears/ It took a long time to get back here.” In reality, Petty never strayed too far for too long, but this is a welcome return.