The title and
much of the advance hype for Tom Petty's third solo album -- his
first release since the Heartbreakers' controversial,
music-industry-bashing "The Last DJ" in 2002 -- promised that these
12 tunes would be the perfect soundtrack for a road trip from a true
master of the form: Just think of all those "listenin' to Tom while
banging on the steering wheel" scenes in Hollywood films, such as
"Jerry Maguire" and "The Silence of the Lambs."
But midway through
the disc, in the midst of a psychedelic freak-out during "Turn This
Car Around," the artist urges us to "turn this car around -- I'm
Companion," the third solo album of Petty's career and his first
since "Wildflowers" (1994) without the band that has backed him for
the last 30 years, turns out to be less about forward momentum and
forging ahead in life than it is about looking back. Though he's
only 55, Petty is talking like an old man at the end of a long and
very hard road, a theme he sums up in a line from another song from
the new disc: "You're flirting with time, baby / And maybe /
Time, baby, is catching up with you" ("Flirting With Time").
Early in the new
millennium, Petty endured one of the most difficult periods of his
life. In the late '90s, he separated from his longtime wife and
lived in seclusion for a time in a shack on the Pacific Palisades,
battling clinical depression. He rebounded in 2001, when he married
his current wife, Dana York. But in 2003, a year after he fired the
Heartbreakers' longtime bassist, Howie Epstein died of a heroin
overdose, and that loss prompted the songwriter to start thinking
about his own mortality.
By all accounts,
life is pretty good for Petty these days. But he's is nonetheless
hinting that this summer's tour by the Heartbreakers may be his
last, and he's starting to consider what kind of legacy he'll leave
behind in the music world. "I've been such a nut, I wonder how long
I'm gonna live sometimes. I've just lived so hard," he told Jaan
Uhelszki in an interview for Harp magazine, one of only a handful
he's done to support the new album. "I think a lot about what time I
have left and what kind of mark I want to leave. I might quit the
road. I think I've had enough of that -- but I haven't had enough of
Indeed, with the
exception of a few contributions from longtime Heartbreakers
guitarist Mike Campbell and producer Jeff Lynne -- who filled the
same role on Petty's solo debut, "Full Moon Fever" (1989), as well
as performing with him in the Traveling Wilburys -- Petty handled
all of the instruments in the studio for "Highway Companion,"
including rhythm guitar, drums, harmonica, electric piano, bass and
lead, and backing vocals. Yet while he clearly had some fun
hammering out a few of his trademark jangly rockers, including
"Flirting With Time," even the handful of upbeat tunes have somber
themes or cautionary warnings about living too hard or too fast.
bouncy "Ankle Deep" is about a thoroughbred that breaks its leg in a
big race; presciently, it was written a year before Kentucky Derby
winner Barbaro's career-ending injury. "Down South" shows flashes of
Petty's sardonic wit when he sings about wanting to "Create
myself down South / Impress all the women / Pretend I'm Samuel
Clemens / Wear seersucker and white linens," but the ostensible
purpose of his trip to the Dixie where he was raised is to "sell
the family headstones [and] make good all my back loans," as if
he's making preparations for his own funeral. Even the somewhat
forced declaration about needing to party hearty over the "Big
Weekend" -- "I need a big weekend / Kickin' up the dust" --
is tempered by the observation that "if you don't run, you rust."
That last line
is an obvious nod to Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of the
Blue)," with its notion that "It's better to burn out / Than it
is to rust," an idea that has all too often been misinterpreted
by younger artists hell-bent on self-destruction, a la Kurt
Cobain in his infamous suicide note. But the Young song that much of
"Highway Companion" actually recalls is "Old Man," with its poignant
vision of both the sadness and the nobility of aging. Like Young,
Petty isn't bemoaning the fact that he has entered the twilight of
his life; he's looking back and thinking that it's pretty darn cool
to have reached this point and had so many incredible experiences
along the way.
degrees of quiet, largely acoustic arrangements, melancholy
productions, haunting blues underpinnings and laid-back tempos, the
majority of the songs on "Highway Companion" fit this bill -- "Night
Driver," "Jack" "Square One," "Damaged by Love" and "This Old Town"
among them. Regardless of what you may have heard, by no means does
this make for a great driving album; you'd be better off taking a
handful of Ambien before getting behind the wheel than listening to
this on a long road trip and expecting it to keep you energized. But
"Highway Companion" is another gorgeous, heartfelt, wistful
and moving statement from a great artist who really has no reason to
think twice about his place in rock history.
Petty can sound
tired of the grind and claim to be questioning why he'd want to
continue the rock 'n' roll circus he's been part of for three
decades now. "It's hard to say who you are these days, but you
run on anyway, don't you?" he sings in the opening track,
"Saving Grace." But we are all the richer for the postcards he sends
along the way.
Tom Petty and
the Heartbreakers perform at the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly
Island with the Strokes opening at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 14 and 15.
Tickets are $49.50 to $89.50 through Ticketmaster, (312) 559-1212.