Petty paves the way for a late-night treat
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
My frequent late-night commutes back to Boston night after night lend themselves to frequent in-car listening. Sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., I walk over to my car, toss my bag in the passenger seat, lean back, tussle my hair for a second, then start the ignition and begin the long drive back. In turning the key, the stereo immediately comes on, and if I’m especially aware, it’s right at the beginning of a song, waiting for me right where I left it before I got out.
At my most delusional, I like to think of myself as a much more boring Hunter S. Thompson, only without the crazy accomplices, drugs, weapons, cigarettes and grapefruits… really, it’s nothing like that. But, not long ago, the scene was made complete with a cassette player in place of the compact disc.
Yeah, and there it is, late at night with no one else on the road. Pop in a tape with the sticker starting to peel off at the corners, and the soundtrack would begin. A little boogie guitar with the John Lee Hooker beat, the quiet, reserved drums, and then the first lyrics to accompany the blur of street lights against the black:
“I’m passing sleeping cities
Fading by degrees
Not believing what I see to be so…”
It would be perfect, too good for a movie. And, save for the worn-down tape, it’s been made a reality by Tom Petty on Highway Companion, one of the better records in his ever-growing cannon of classic rock n’ roll.
It’s been a while since Petty has made a strong, cohesive album. 2002’s The Last DJ was noble but ultimately forgettable. Echo appeared in 1999, and while every song was solid, it felt a bit long in places, but it was still a winner. Before that was the soundtrack to She’s The One (a personal favorite), and before that, his masterpiece: 1994’s Wildflowers. This is his first solo record since then, so it shouldn’t be a surprised that it feels more homespun and personal than the last few albums. Petty has always been a fantastic storyteller, and coupled with his childlike love of rock n’ roll, he’s managed to pump out a few classics along the way.
Highway Companion arrives as Petty prepares to take an elongated break from the road. So, while it’s anyone’s guess as to when his next album will appear, its safe to guess that Petty wanted to make a real statement with this record, one that would last longer than a gimmick or a toss-off single. To achieve this, the opening “Saving Grace” rollicks through some tight blues riffs to really knock the listener out with the realization that Petty can still shake those seats when he wants to.
But the real story is how well the rest of the album works. Rolling through peaks and valleys, the intimate feel of songs like “This Old Town,” “Square One” and “Turn This Car Around” is very striking. Playing alongside old friend Mike Campbell, producer Jeff Lynne and hardly anyone else, Petty has crafted a record that immediately satisfies while rewarding multiple listens. “Ankle Deep” sounds a little better every time the narrative of the girl plays, while “Big Weekend” grows from recalling “Yer So Bad” to standing on its own.
And, as the title may have suggested, it sounds great in the car. With the wind whipping past on the freeway and the lanes isolated, Petty’s songs, homegrown and weathered, echo through the car and wrap around the driver’s head. They push and pull, ebb and flow, but always move forward on its ultimate journey to nowhere.
The record, by the way, sounds great on repeat too, moving nicely from “The Golden Rose” back to “Saving Grace” to keep the trip rolling.
While he’s been a great performer forever, it’s no stretch to say that it’s wonderful to hear Petty sounding so natural in his own skin within his own songs. While it may not grow to be an all-out classic, Highway Companion is Petty’s best work in years and one of the better rock albums of 2006.
On the road, everything old becomes new again. Here, Petty illuminates the best and leaves out the rest, cobbling together the ultimate mix tape for the car. Pop this in, go for a spin, and take a drive to nowhere in particular. This will be your soundtrack to your next journey.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org