“Highway Companion” (American Recordings)
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TAKING on the role of traveling buddy for his third solo venture, Tom Petty, sans Heartbreakers, clearly is more interested in the journey than whatever destination may lie at the end of it.
In the album’s dozen songs, for which he plays most of the instruments himself, he cruises slowly down the back roads of what most often feels like the South of his youth, making this a journey of considerable self-assessment. It’s also a more writerly exercise than typical of his concise and straightforward Heartbreakers hits. In “Down South,” he sings about pretending to be Samuel Clemens to impress the girls, but more often than not he taps the melancholy reflection of a Reynolds Price rather than the razor wit of a Mark Twain.
He touches on themes of aging, going home, making amends, giving and receiving forgiveness -- issues those in Petty’s boomer age bracket start to find more compelling than the perennial rock-world foibles of those still coming of age. Those subjects tend to be thorny and complex, and his lyrics are overwhelmingly oblique, snatching imagery and memories at will, with nary a linear narrative.
The result resembles impressionistic tone poems -- as much as a dyed-in-the-wool rocker such as Petty can make them -- rather than the great sing-along choruses with which the Florida-born musician first made his mark three decades ago. His classic-rock references are woven in and out of the musical fabric: an echo of Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” in the melody of “Down South,” the two-chord toggling of the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You” in “Jack,” the loping Neil Young/Crazy Horse vibe in “This Old Town,” the Lennon-esque album closer “The Golden Rose.”
As a guided tour of Petty’s autobiographical American South, “Highway Companion” (in stores Tuesday) musically represents time spent cogitating next to a gurgling brook in a hidden meadow rather than standing in awe in front of Niagara Falls. It’s a less spectacular vista, but one with the potential for more deeply felt rewards for the right traveler.