Tom Petty's recording career has been a persistent curiosity, because while he's imminently capable of putting together a classic album, he's rarely actually done it. He's stayed more in the "singles and filler" album-making mode, only occasionally popping out a Damn The Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever, or Wildflowers. Petty's latest, Highway Companion, doesn't crack that top three, but it's arguably the fourth-best album he's ever made. Like Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, it's nominally a solo record, with only scattered appearances by Petty's band The Heartbreakers. Apparently, something about stepping outside the rock-band format frees Petty up, letting him write batches of songs that are stylistically eclectic, yet unified by mood.
On Highway Companion, that mood is dreamy and idle—the feeling of long stretches of road disappearing under rolling tires. Working with producer Jeff Lynne for the first time in more than a decade, Petty generates a handful of slight, glittery Lynne-style shuffles, like "Flirting With Time" and "Big Weekend." (Even the roadhouse opener "Saving Grace" is rigged with little pop explosions.) But the album leans just as hard on gentle, zigzagging ballads like "Square One," weird roots exercises like "Jack" and "Turn This Car Around," and liquid mood pieces like "Night Driver" and "The Golden Rose." Highway Companion is bathed in a headlight glow, and has the loping pace and casual melodicism of a man humming to himself. It's an extended salute to killing time, telling stories, swapping jokes, and singing along to the radio. An album title has rarely been more apt.