Just when it appeared that Tom Petty was destined to join the multitudes of Seventies and Eighties rock veterans who have descended into irrelevance by sticking around too long, he's pulled a rabbit out of his hat with the unexpectedly solid Highway Companion.
Though still working with longtime companions the Heartbreakers - they'll celebrate their 30th anniversary this year with a tour and documentary directed by Peter Bogdonavich - Petty seemed to have run out of steam in the studio. His last two underwhelming efforts with the Heartbreakers - 1999's Echo and 2002's The Last DJ - left the lingering impression that the boys may be better off sticking to the annual greatest hits tour.
In fact, the best music Petty has made over the last 15 years has been on his two solo albums, Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, and as a member of the all-star busman holiday group The Travelling Wilburys.
So when it came to putting together a new solo album, what better ace in the hole could Petty have relied on than the common denominator for most of that stellar output? Bandmate Jeff Lynne, who, in addition to producing and contributing to Full Moon Fever and the Wilburys also produced the last great Heartbreakers album, 1993's Into the Great Wide Open.
The move paid off - Petty, Lynne and longtime Heartbreaker colleague Mike Campbell have created the most vibrant and satisfying album with the Petty name on it in many full moons. The difference is the songs - always Petty's strength, they've been watered down over the last decade with big themes, flabby music and that awful haircut which left Petty looking like a redneck serial killer.
Highway Companion, as the title suggests, deals with restlessness and life's endless search for tranquility - lofty themes indeed, but much more manageable for Petty's meat and potatoes rock (and much more enjoyable than The Last DJ's ponderous take on corporate greed). Many of the songs allude musically to previous Petty high points but move them further along up the road.
The opening track, "Saving Grace," already a hit in the US, is a thumping blues roots rocker, with its John Lee Hooker beat making it a perfect driving song. Its lyrics set the pace for the album - "You keep on running for another place, to find that saving grace."
It's followed by the delicate acoustic "Square One," which finds Petty at his autobiographical finest. Here, and on most of the songs, Petty has honed his lyrics into a dazzling craft - sardonic and bemused, yet uplifting. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the stately, Blond on Blond-tinged "Down South," with its references to Samuel Clemens and seersucker suits.
"Flirting with Time" is the closest thing on Highway Companion to a full-fledged, jangly Heartbreaker song, with punchy pop leanings performed with a heavy British Invasion slant, while "Turn This Car Around" borrows the crashing guitar chords of Into the Great Wide Open's title song.
Set against superior material like this, weaker tracks like "Jack" and "Night Driver" are minor distractions rather than reflections of the album as a whole. Highway Companion comes full circle, beginning with the hunger and edginess of "Saving Grace" and concluding with resignation and regret on the closing track, the angelic waltz "The Golden Rose."
But it's not a sad ending - as Petty has shown in his ongoing journey, he's rediscovered his love of making music.
Jacket Full of Danger
High concept art or a bad joke? I leave it to you to decide. But New Yorker Adam Green - hip credentials: records for Rough Trade, hangs out with Julian Casablancas of the Strokes - has found an untapped musical niche. Jacket Full of Danger finds his rich baritone, which sounds like a cross between Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison, wrapping quirky urban lyrics about hairy women, drugs and the Novotel hotel chain around kitschy mid-Sixties orchestrated pop.
You may think you've walked into a Glen Campbell or Nancy Sinatra record with lyrics by Jonathan Richman or Frank Zappa, but the result is surprisingly sterling. "Pay The Toll" would have sounded perfect as part of the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, and the late Vegas period Elvis would have latched onto "Hollywood Bowl" in a second.
You're not sure if you're supposed to laugh or sing along, but in the end, you'll likely do both.
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