I have to admit, when I got wind of Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty (and Mike Campbell) cutting an album together again, I spent the time since then making up dozens of variations in my mind on how this album would sound. And of course, I worked up my hopes that this would be the best new album by anyone in years. I have to stop doing that.
Highway Companion is Tom Petty’s best album since Wildflowers. We’ll get that out of the way now and I’m getting the sense that many critics are going to reach the same conclusion. However, Highway Companion starts to run out of rocket fuel about half-way through.
Saving Grace: I’m holding to my original assessment of this. Excellent track, hit-worthy, breaks newer ground, great feel. It’s probably the album’s strongest track and if you go by Conversations With Tom Petty, it was one of the last songs recorded for Highway Companion… and the only rocker.
Square One: If you’re like me and have to have any new Jeff Lynne-related music as soon as I can get my hands on it, then Square One will be a bit of an afterthought. It’s been out for almost a year and the song kinda ran its course for now. But again, I hold to original assessment on this, Square One is too good to leave off Highway Companion. Collectors note, the very end of the song was changed from the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Elizabethtown version.
Flirting With Time: I didn’t find anything about “Flirting with Time” that made me say “Wow” but I found myself tapping the steering wheel a little more than usual. I guess that can’t be a bad thing.
Down South: Exactly what I hoped I’d hear from Tom Petty produced by Jeff Lynne: Layers of unique guitar sounds with one riff that holds it all together. The lyrics, the music, the arrangement, the trippy production, everything just hit the spot for me as a fan of Tom and a fan of Jeff. My far and away favorite on this album.
Jack: I never saw or bought the DVD for Elizabethtown, but I read someone talk about Jack being used in the film and it was supposedly a rocker. It isn’t. But this short and unusual morsel grows on you quickly.
Turn This Car Around: This is even a little more unconventional than Jack. I’m not totally on board with it yet, but something is making me come back to it. I’ll figure it out what that is eventually.
Big Weekend: Ah, yes. The Wilbury shout-out. For as much as I adored the Wilbury music, there’s too many similarities in Big Weekend to make this a stand-out track. And this was used by the NBA for Finals montages? I can’t help to wonder if that helps or hurts. I will say, though, the song (like Saving Grace) is much better than the 30 second clip used in the NBA Finals suggested.
Night Driver: For whatever reason, I over-hyped this one in my brain and I haven’t gotten over it. The George Harrison-style guitar solo did nothing for me this time.
Damaged By Love: Simple tune, maybe a little too simple. But out of the simple tunes on this record (and there are a few), Damaged by Love gets better the more I listen.
This Old Town: This one doesn’t break any new ground, but all of the elements weave in and out of each pretty pleasantly. But like most of the songs on the second half of the album, there’s something missing that would give it a better “wow” factor.
Ankle Deep: “She didn’t speak, for a week, just kinda mumbled…” saved this song. I have to hand it to Tom, he still knows how to churn out agreat lyric.
The Golden Rose: We get a long-overdue dose of Jeff’s haunting production side. But it’s a prime example of what drives me nuts about his producing. The song is clearly the album’s finale. Intro is great, fade out is great. Outside of that, the song is skin and bones. At the very least, the last chorus could have gone a second time as a slightly more dramatic and logical album farewell. Sometimes, he cuts songs off at the knee and it hurts. I understand the point of having a two and half minute track and not every song needs to be 4 or 5 minutes. But it’s an unsatisfying feeling to say “Is that it?” I should be glad, three songs on the album went 4 minutes or better.
I’ll be interested in seeing how the critics and Tom Petty fans embrace this. Don’t get me wrong, it has some totally refreshing moments, I just fear too many comparisons to Full Moon Fever. If that happens, they’ll sell this record short and Highway Companion is too good to sell short.