The Petty Archives

CD Reviews: Petty dives inward on new album
Review by Jon Pareles
The Island Packet - Friday, July 28, 2006

Tom Petty takes his time between albums, typically about four or five years. That leaves long spells for contemplation and simple aging, and on "Highway Companion" Petty, 55, sounds almost autumnal. He sings in his grainiest, least heroic voice, and in song after song he reflects on time passing by. "You're flirting with time, baby," he sings, "and maybe time, baby, is catching up with you."

On his previous studio album, "The Last DJ" in 2002, Petty was cranky about the state of American culture. Now he's beyond all that; he's on to existential questions. Always one of rock's pithiest lyricists, Petty sketches characters who may or may not be himself, and he has pared many of his verse down to cryptic images: "A figure in the doorway shouldering the blame/A saint without a name," he sings in "Turn This Car Around."

That approach to songwriting brings him closer than ever to Bob Dylan and especially Neil Young, and the music doesn't evade the resemblances. The songs are lean and deliberate, played by Petty (on drums as well as guitar) with Mike Campbell (the lead guitarist in Petty's band, the Heartbreakers) and Jeff Lynne. The arrangements are sill rooted in the folk-rock and British invasion pop that have sustained Petty's music for 30 years.

"Saving Grace" is the most upbeat track on a largely introspective album. Petty sill comes up with choruses that swell toward sure-fire hooks -- like "Damaged by Love," which could almost be an Everly Brothers ballad -- but he's not issuing ultimatums the way he did in old tunes like "I Won't Back Down." Now the songs reflect a longer view: "It took a world of trouble, took a world of tears/Yeah it took a long time to get back here," he sings in "Square One."

For about half of "Highway Companion" Petty's reticence opens the songs to a sense of mystery. For the rest, he just sounds reserved and cagey, singing about restlessness but sounding all too settled.