Bare-bones production draws attention to lackluster lyrics on Petty’s latest
“If you don’t run, you rust,” Tom Petty sings on his new album, Highway Companion. If this echo of Neil Young (and his motto, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust”) weren’t enough, the lazy country-rock-stomp intro of “Turn This Car Around” and “This Old Town” make Petty’s new songs sound like outtakes from Young’s Harvest album. Moreover, Petty is tackling some of Young’s recent obsessions: the running-out-of-time for the baby-boomer generation and the need to clear all distractions and get back to life’s fundamentals, back to what the second track describes as “Square One.”
There’s nothing wrong with treading in another artist’s footsteps. Young has scarcely exhausted the possibilities of country-rock or of encroaching mortality. Plus, Petty has a clear-cut advantage over such role models as Young and Bob Dylan: He has the same nasal tenor that can bend notes and twist timbres into new meanings, but he has a much surer sense of pitch, so he can marry these meanings to juicy melodies.
So why is his new album so underwhelming? Because Petty has gotten away from his strength—whipping pop hooks into an emotional frenzy of harmonies—and has focused on his weakness: overly ambitious lyrics. Think of his brightest moments—“American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Even the Losers,” “The Waiting,” “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down.” Do we remember them for their philosophical insights or for their ever-expanding swirl of vocal, guitar and keyboard harmonies?
On Highway Companion, Petty has given most of the Heartbreakers the month o? and has made the entire album with just two collaborators: Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell and Petty’s fellow Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynne. The three men played all the instruments, sang all the vocals and handled all the production. The results are stripped-down arrangements that direct the listener’s focus to Petty’s low-key, o?-handed vocals and to his lyrics.
And, for the most part, these lyrics don’t stand up well under such close scrutiny. The opening track, “Saving Grace,” finds the narrator flying through the sky, staring through the branches into the backyards of ordinary Americans, fueled by one of John Lee Hooker’s boogie-blues riffs. From such a vantage point, you might expect the singer to gain some memorable insights, but all he notices are “statues that atone for my sins” and government buildings with “a guard on every door.” Finally, he shrugs and concedes, “It’s hard to say who you are these days.” Such vague generalities and abstractions dominate the album. How does he describe his “Big Weekend?” He’s going to “go hit the bars” and “kick up the dust.” How’s he going to win back his ex-lover? “I’m gonna give her all my soul; I’m gonna play her rock ’n’ roll.” How does he evoke the urban alienation of “This Old Town?” “Mornings are cold,” he complains, “don’t know a soul on the street.” What insights does this Florida native gain from a trip back home? He informs us that “Down South” the trees still have Spanish moss, the bugs still hit the windshield and the men still wear white-linen suits.
If Petty really wants to get back to his roots, back to “Square One,” he should ditch the bare-bones production, the faux Southernisms and the would-be profundity. He should return to the California pop/rock that first established his reputation. It’s in the drama of jagged guitars tearing apart a song and honeyed voices stitching it back together that Petty finds his deepest meaning. That’s what he does on the new album’s two best tracks.
“Night Driver” is the only song that presents a coherent narrative: A man who’s been doing too much driving on too little sleep is snaking along the Pacific Coast Highway, pulled home by his lover as if she were a tractor beam. “I see your face up there with the Satellites,” Petty sings while Campbell’s guitar wobbles like a Telstar signal. Lush chords evoke the promise of home, while eerily treated guitar captures the dangers of driving sleep-deprived and alone. The two elements push and pull at each other until the man skids o? the blacktop and is carried by a helicopter to a shock-trauma unit. He finds himself in a hospital bed, blanketed in slow tempos, tranquilized by watery keyboards and forced to contemplate his life at last.
If that song echoes The Byrds’ sci-? obsessions, “Flirting with Time” boasts the Byrdsian hooks and jingle-jangle guitar of Petty’s best, earliest records. This time it’s the singer’s lover who’s overstretched, pretending that if she keeps moving frantically, time will never catch her. The lyrics are scattershot images that don’t add up to much, but the music makes the story perfectly clear. The verses are full of nervous rhythms and unresolved chord changes, but when the melody rises into the anthemic chorus and Lynne joins the vocal harmony, you can almost hear time keeping its inevitable appointment.