Exactly thirty years since his debut with The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty is not only still making music (somewhat surprising) but still making good music (most surprising). While Petty's not at his best, Highway Companion is a pleasant album showcasing essentially basic folk/rock tunes.
With age, Petty's style has arguably become less ambitious, more secure, and totally unpretentious; an approach that makes it feel very accessible for Petty neophytes and very rewarding for fans. Folk traditionalists should also solace here with his familiar lyrics and voice, pure as ever, if not more so. His age also brings upon the album an undercurrent of contentment, as if he's modestly expressing his gratitude to the music industry.
Each song shifts gears, but Companion doesn't lag until the last three tracks. The first two songs are both remarkable and possibly the most opposite ones on the album. "Saving Grace", a peppy roadside-worthy opener, is immediately contrasted by "Square One", one of the more sincere acoustic songs on the album. From there the album varies from the eclectic slides of "Big Weekend" to the calmer, romantic "Damaged By Love". While Highway Companion occasionally delves into blander, more conventional pop tracks such as "Flirting With Time" and "Jack", the prizewinners more than compensate.
Best of all, no track feels out of place. Companion feels whole and comfortable throughout. This can, in part, be attributed to the recurring metaphors described in Companion; that of travel and passage of time, akin to a driving along a highway. This relation transcends Highway Companion from merely a good folk album to a truly poetic folk album.
Petty's lyrics emit a melancholy air, blending the consistent highway metaphor with words of experience and wisdom. "It took a world of trouble, it took a world of tears/ It took a long time to get back here." Each song deals with travel, with moving from one point to another in life, and Petty's apparent calm attitude manifests the "Companion" part of the album title.
Highway Companion may not win over any new fans, but it certainly tailors to the old fanbase. It's easy listening as its finest: finely crafted and pleasant to the ears. Best of all, it's a sign that Tom doesn't have any intention of giving up anytime soon.