The ache of years wraps itself around Highway Companion, an introspective, dimly lit collection that marks Tom Petty’s first effort since 2002’s The Last DJ. Autumnal and quietly resigned, it’s an album crafted by a man whose hourglass seems to be draining of sand much faster than he’d like: “You’re flirting with time, baby/And maybe time baby, is catching up with you,” sings Petty not long into the album. It’s a knowing backward glance echoed elsewhere; even the booklet photo of Petty resembles a man who’s already gone. Teaming again with producer Jeff Lynne and creative partner Mike Campbell, these 12 often-elegiac tracks are machine-shop sleek, effortlessly buffed to a precision gloss that buoys Petty’s irresistible harmonies and layered compositions. While the lyrical material tends toward the downcast, you’d be hard pressed to find any dirges or minor key rambles here—cuts like “Down South,” “Jack,” and “Big Weekend” speed the listener along the edge of some sun-dappled ocean, carefree and spiced with fresh air. It’s a bracing blast of California country-rock, a twilight rumination upon a life lived with precious few compromises. Taken as a whole (a practice seemingly lost in the iPod age), Highway Companion suggests that Petty is winding things down, slowing his already glacial pace to step away completely from music. Consider it a delicious bit of cosmic irony that despite intimations to the contrary, the aging Petty hasn’t sounded this vital in more than a decade.
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