Tuesday, August 15, 2006

MUSIC: Tom Petty, Highway Companion

Highway Companion

For my birthday last week, my sister gave me Tom Petty's latest album, Highway Companion. And I've been loving it. It's easily one of Petty's best complete albums. As I mentioned in this post (and as Noel Murray mentioned before me), Petty has a tendency to make great singles but very uneven albums. Such as, say, The Last DJ, which, despite repeated efforts on my part (and the support of Mr. Lowery), has yet to impress me as being much more than one really good single and a lot of so-so filler.

Highway, on the other hand, is solid from beginning to end. The beginning, suitably enough, is probably the strongest track: "Saving Grace," the first single from the album. The opening riff to the song is remarkably similar to the George Thorogood version of "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer," which I hope and presume is purely coincidental, what with the recent kerfuffle over the striking similarities between the Red Hot Chili Peppers song "Dani California" and Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance." It's a rousing, toe-tapping, finger-snapping tune, punctuated with a very unusual and distinctive sound during the opening verse and chorus -- a rapid metallic "tik-tik-tik-tik-tik-tik," which is revealed in the song's video to be the drummer rattling his sticks on either side of his cymbal's steel support pole. And, continuing from that last post I mentioned above, it's got a great opening line: "I'm passing sleeping cities/Fading by degrees."

The album doesn't quite match Petty's masterpiece, Full Moon Fever, but, similar to that album and his other non-Heartbreakers effort, Wildflowers (to go off on a tangent, the official Amazon editorial review for that album is an astounding load of horseshit), it's better overall than pretty much every single Petty w/Heartbreakers album (with the notable exceptions of Damn the Torpedoes and She's the One). Seriously, I'm beginning to wonder why Petty even goes back into the studio with the Heartbreakers.

The feeling of Highway is strikingly different from Petty's first solo venture; where Full Moon was anthemically defiant, boisterous, whimsical ("Hello CD listeners"), mischievous, and generally rocking, Highway is more thoughtful, mellow, reflective, poetic, melancholic, and generally representative of a man coming up on 20 years down the line from Full Moon. Where "Saving Grace" kicks off the album with the familiar excitement of a road trip, it's followed just five songs later with the diametrically opposed "Turn This Car Around," and shortly after that, "Night Driver," with its chorus, "Night driver, drifting home again." The open road clearly no longer holds the same appeal for Petty as it did in Full Moon's "Runnin' Down a Dream;" the road back home has become more attractive.

I'm still digesting the album at this point. Aside from "Saving Grace," other standouts for me so far include:

--"Big Weekend," whose jangly guitar in the chorus feels like the album's most blatant nod (along with the strings on "Ankle Deep in Love") to E.L.O.'s Jeff Lynne, Petty's Traveling Wilburys bandmate, and the producer of both Highway and Full Moon

--"Jack," which brings to mind the indomitable young(ish) lover of Full Moon with the chorus "You say what you want to, Jack/I'm gonna get my baby back"

--"Flirting With Time," a bittersweet acknowledgement of the passing of years: "You're flirting with time, baby/Flirting with time, and maybe/Time, baby, is catching up to you"

This is a fantastic album. It might be a little harder to listen to quite as frequently as some of Petty's other milestones, because a great deal of it muses on the passing of time, the inexorable aging process. Any one of us who recalls buying Full Moon Fever brand new can probably share Petty's Highway sentiments somewhat (damn, dude, that came out in 1989!), but putting this new album on REPEAT doesn't generate a similar kind of joy as did Full Moon. In fact, it might get a little depressing. But administered in reasonable doses, it's a beautiful collection of music, one of Petty's very best.

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