When some artists get angry they make their best work. Take Neil Young, who through the years has created some of the finest protest songs ever recorded, and recently released the scathing “Living With War,” which includes a vicious Bush-bashing tune titled “Let’s Impeach the President.”
When Tom Petty got angry, as he did on his 2002 release “The Last DJ,” he made by far his worst record — a grumpy, self-aggrandizing disc ostensibly railing about music business practices that ended up coming off as Petty being irked that he can’t get a new song on the radio anymore.
It’s one thing to rail against a universal subject, such as war, but launching a self-centered disc about your career raises the question, “Who cares, Tom?” It’s like me writing a column about how the Tribune stunts my creativity by not printing my lengthy diatribes on the process of how I write my columns, and we know, dear readers, how entertaining that would be.
Listening to “The Last DJ” was like listening to your grandpa go on and on about how great it was after World War II when everything, including a brand-new car, cost a dime. Irrelevant and not fun to listen to.
Fortunately, Tom Petty is back to doing what he does best on his new disc, “Highway Companion.” It’s an amalgam of popular American music — careening from singer/songwriter folk to garage rock to Byrdsian pop to country rock — and one of the best records of Petty’s 30-year career.
As on 1989’s classic “Full Moon Fever,” his first disc without longtime backing band The Heartbreakers, Petty’s sound is stripped bare here. Plenty of the tunes feature simple instrumentation, bringing out the quality of the songwriting and Petty’s rustic voice.
While not a concept album with a narrative cohesion, “Highway Companion” is a thematic disc, with many of the songs, true to its title, written about being out on the open road.
Kicking off with “Saving Grace,” Petty makes it known that he is back in form as an American rocker, borrowing a little stomp from John Lee Hooker and some swirling Farfisa organ from countless garage-rock bands of the ’60s to create his best song since “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” more than a decade ago.
After the rocking opening track, however, the disc leans more to Petty’s mellow side, and fans of his 1994 disc “Wildflowers” will find plenty to love here, such as the gorgeous, acoustic “Square One,” “Ankle Deep” and the disc’s closing track, “The Golden Rose.”
Fans of Petty’s work on albums such as “Damn the Torpedoes” and “Hard Promises” will love the electric 12-string-propelled “Flirting With Time,” “Turn This Car Around” and the country-ish “Big Weekend.”
With “Highway Companion,” Petty (who will perform on Oct. 4 at Glendale Arena) has proved “The Last DJ” to be a fluke, the aberration of a great career, and it’s great to have him back in peak form.
And no, Tom, radio probably won’t play it, but please don’t do “The Last DJ Part II”!