- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

In the recent Showtime documentary “All We are Saying,” Tom Petty tells filmmaker Rosanna Arquette the road is the last refuge for dyed-in-the-wool rockers like himself. As waistlines expand and faces grow craggy and lined, MTV — and by extension youth culture — wants nothing to do with you.

There’s no choice, then, but to take to the highway and the stage, where musicianship still matters and where nostalgic rock fans can themselves cheat time and revel in the past.

Both of these themes — the saving grace of the road and the passage of time — are evident on Mr. Petty’s endlessly engaging new album, “Highway Companion,” the third proper solo album of his career.

Mr. Petty, 55, enjoyed more success in the music-video medium than perhaps any other performer of his generation; the epic clips that accompanied songs like “Into the Great Wide Open” and “It’s Good to Be King” enjoyed wide airplay on MTV and were quite innovative for their time.

Hence, it was a little rich of Mr. Petty to decry the relentlessly image-conscious state of popular culture as he did on his last release, 2002’s embittered “The Last DJ.”

“Highway Companion” is a much more personal, and much better, album; it is introspective, modest and playful; it speaks to big themes, but from a noncritical, human perspective. Its heartfelt devotion can be summed up in this offer from Mr. Petty on the song “Jack”: “If you give me half a chance/I will make her sing and dance/I’m gonna give her all my soul/I’m gonna play her rock ‘n’ roll.”

Playing rock ‘n’ roll: Ultimately it’s as simple as that — which is pleasantly surprising, given that Mr. Petty and veteran Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell co-produced “Companion” with Jeff Lynne, the overdub-addicted sonic swashbuckler who helmed Mr. Petty’s otherwise unimpeachable first solo album, 1989’s “Full Moon Fever.”

There are no “American Girl” or “Free Fallin’”-esque anthems to be found here. Rather, it’s the little things that mean the most on “Highway Companion,” such as the pinging of drumsticks on a high-hat stand on the opening track “Saving Grace,” a John Lee Hooker (by way of ZZ Top) Chicago blues groove, or the grease-laden echo of Mr. Campbell’s guitar on “Jack.”

Indeed, the uncluttered production leaves ample room for Mr. Campbell’s tastefully understated leads to shine through elsewhere on “Companion,” on such tracks as the swirling folk-rocker “Down South” and the trippy “Night Driver.”

Mr. Petty himself, of course, is in fine late-career form. His singing is typically passionate and unfussy. And his lyrical sense is, at times, wonderfully cryptic, as on this intriguing head-scratcher from “Down South”: “Chase a ghost down south/Spirits cross the dead fields/Mosquitoes hit the windshield/All documents remain sealed.”

“Companion” is arguably a little short on uptempo rockers — “Saving Grace,” the infectious, Byrdsian “Flirting With Time” and the country shuffle “Big Weekend” are its briskest efforts. But fans who chilled out to laid-back Heartbreaker grooves such as “You Don’t Know How It Feels” in the early ‘90s will feel right at home with new cuts such as “Turn This Car Around,” whose slow-burning, hypnotic rhythm leaves behind a pleasant, familiar haze.

And, on “Square One,” Mr. Petty notches another fine, plain-spoken ballad, in the tradition of “Alright for Now” and “Wildflowers.” He sings with wise, quiet confidence: “It took a world of trouble, it took a world of tears/It took a long time to get back here.”

“Highway Companion” lives up to its billing, but it’s decidedly not the soundtrack to a rowdy spring-break road trip.

This one counts the miles on the odometer of the soul.

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