Another late night with Tom Petty's Highway Companion
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Coming off two major snowstorms, we’re in the middle of some unseasonable warmth in New England. The sun’s out and, while not balmy, it’s not freezing. And it’s hard not to think about the spring and summer.
That means concerts, of course, and as part of a ticket-buying flurry this week, I secured entry to the second night of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ return to Boston in July. This has spurred on the typical, semi-regular re-visitation with his catalog. I made a gloriously overindulgent five-hour, 74-song playlist of my favorites, plunged back into the four-disc The Live Anthology and began a re-inspection of some of the albums that don’t always get my immediate attention.
Last night was Highway Companion’s turn. His 2006 solo album is hiding within an expansive library, but my recollection was that the songs were mostly quiet little gems that hung together to create a mood that sustains itself for the duration. So after a night visiting friends in Plymouth, I pulled it up for the ride back to Boston that usually takes just under an hour.
When the first notes of “Saving Grace” came through on Route 44 heading back to Route 3, there was an incredible feeling of déjà vu. When this album had originally come out, I remembered it being my companion at 1 or 2 a.m. as I made my way back home from my job on the night desk at the newspaper. That ride was also just under an hour, and the stretches of unlit highway seemed to suit the characters in the songs.
The experience was so vivid that when I originally reviewed this album in 2006, it became the foundation of that piece. Digging through the then-new Petty album suddenly became an easier experience, with the stories and the sounds coming to life in a way they hadn’t while I was just listening to the CD in my apartment. I had a flash of what might have been part of Petty’s vision for the time, and I was sucked in. And with that vision of the past riding shotgun to the present, the effect of the album was magnified.
Part of the memory of the time was listening while internally sizing up the contents to Petty’s best, judging exactly how it held up to Wildflowers or Hard Promises. In the end, it doesn’t measure up to those, but great albums by some of my favorite artists can’t stand with those pillars. Instead, Highway Companion is excellent work by a great artist, and it stands up best in those isolated moments, in the driver’s seat alone with nothing but the sound of the road and the semi-regular appearance of overhead lights accompanying the music.
Since music and art isn’t a competition, this works the way it was intended. And more than a decade on, it still holds the power of 12 songs uniquely designed to work along the road. Where the one-two punch of “Saving Grace” and “Square One” are so strong they can work apart from their album mates, the rest are still solid enough to create a unified atmosphere.
The characters that pop up along the way even seem like they’ve been written within short stories in an anthology — the determined, jilted lover in “Jack,” the wayward family member heading back to his family reunion with enthusiasm tamped down by more than a little trepidation in “Down South,” the older, jaded lifer recounting the various sins within “This Old Town,” the “Night Driver” drifting home again, headlights in his eyes. They’re all quick glimpses of full lives, just a pass through on people who have lived and breathed more than their share, seen by those who are coming and going on their own path.
Those resilient-yet-unsure characters don’t just pop up on that opening track but remain a constant, through tracks like “Flirting with Time” and “Ankle Deep.” Confident while desperately curious, they’re constantly searching for something greater, or at least something with meaning, and it’s not hard to imagine them wandering the roads on a hunt for some greater truth that is always elusive but must be present somewhere.
Points A and B have changed but the rough 45-minute trip has stayed the same, to the point that “Saving Grace” whipped back around and finished just as I was parking the car back home. It once again made the trip feel new and utterly familiar, without an ounce of stress on the situation.
Thanks to the sheer weight and volume of Petty’s catalog, Highway Companion is not likely to be remembered at the top of the class. But that’s irrelevant. It exists as a fantastic collection in its own right, another worthwhile entry in a great artist’s portfolio. And it’s still there, waiting to accompany another lone driver home with stories that never seem to age and a sound that is always at once classic and in the moment.
Feb. 22, 2017
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org