By Mark Guarino
First things first: Tom Petty did not join Pink Floyd. You wouldn’t know it from the cover art of “Highway Companion” (American), the new album from America’s favorite scarecrow rocker, in stores today.
Rocket ships, desert landscapes and space monkeys aside, the music is a comfortably numb collection of depressive, mostly acoustic rockers Petty recorded without the Heartbreakers, just longtime collaborator Mike Campbell and producer/Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne. Petty is in a downcast mood on these songs that are introspective on age, searching for early inspiration, fighting back time and taking a stab at rebirth.
These are themes that are common for anyone at Petty’s crossroads — he is 55, one year removed from the age Bob Dylan was in 1997 when he released “Time Out of Mind” (Columbia), another album that looked at the graying years with fear and regret. But while Dylan matched his sadness and self-loathing with morbid humor and playful imagery, Petty simply sounds resigned for the fall. The lean arrangements combined with Petty’s thin vocals do not have the comforting embrace of “Wildflowers,” his previous solo album from 1994. Here, he simply sounds like a drag.
The stomping beats (Petty plays all the drums) and Campbell’s ever-present slide guitar sustain these songs but often feel overly referential to more familiar songs from Petty’s past. On “Night Driver,” the most oblique song of the bunch, Petty imagines himself as a car trapped on a highway, “fighting sleep with windows down/worn out from long goodbyes.”
When the music perks up, Petty flickers to life. On “Flirting With Time,” he provides the album with a sunny pop hook cased in dread: “You’re flirting with time baby … And maybe time, baby, is catching up with you.” Curse or death wish, at least it’s fun to sing along with.
In his earlier days, Petty’s songs took defiant stands, of not backing down and refusing to go through life as a refuge. There is nothing here so sweeping or resilient. Instead, Petty seems to mine inspiration from smaller moments. The temporary escape of “Big Weekend,” a chugging rocker, is ruled by this mission statement: “if you don’t run, you rust.” On “Down South,” he keeps moving, towards his earliest roots where his plans include pretending he’s Samuel Clemens and to “wear seersucker and white linens.”
The music is spiked with just the basics, but that’s all that’s needed to dart along songs like this. Otherwise, “Highway Companion” is a bone weary dashboard confessional at the end of an all-day drive.