As his visage gradually disappears behind rock's most fulsome face-foliage, Rick Rubin seems to be taking on the role of saviour of American rock'n'roll. It's hard to think of another producer who could so effortlessly balance the conflicting demands of helping the Red Hot Chili Peppers make a suitably multi-platinum, stadium-sized impact and ensuring that the heritage of such as Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond is tastefully secured. And even when he's not personally involved in a production, his American Recordings label now provides a sympathetic home for a broad range of quality artists, the most recent of whom is Tom Petty.
Produced with commendable restraint by Jeff Lynne, Highway Companion is Petty's third outing without the full complement of Heartbreakers; only guitarist Mike Campbell is retained here, with Petty and Lynne providing everything else, from drums, bass, keyboards and guitars, to the autoharp gently strummed by the latter on "Square One".
The sound is just as beholden as ever to the golden years of American rock music, with the hook riff to "Jack" reminiscent of Love's "Bummer in the Summer", "Down South" haunted by the melody to Dylan's "Love Minus Zero / No Limit", and "Turn This Car Around" recalling the terser, Stills /Young end of the Crosby, Stills & Nash oeuvre. Petty's staple Byrdsy jangle, meanwhile, has rarely been better applied than to "Flirting with Time", in which a relationship reaches crisis-point: "I've done all I can/Now it's up to you/You're flirting with time, baby."
Petty flirts with time throughout the album, which has an overall theme of flight, usually involving some sense of regret. "You keep running from place to place, trying to find that saving grace", runs the key line to "Saving Grace", the loping boogie with Tex-Mex organ that opens the album; while elsewhere, the elegant, relaxed rockabilly number "Big Weekend" contains the admonition, "If you don't run, you rust". Much of the time, the flight involves returning to make redress for past neglect. "Down South", for instance, finds Petty contemplating a final trip to make peace with his past, "Sell the family headstones/Drag a bag of dry bones/Make good all the back-homes"; while the reformed protagonist of "Square One" - perhaps a rehabilitated addict - anticipates starting over with a clean slate: "It took a world of trouble, a world of tears/It took a long time to get back here". Perhaps the album's most poignant returnee, however, is the "Night Driver" encountered "drifting home again", as the police close in on his fugitive flight.
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