Tom Petty is perpetually underrated. He debuted too late in pop music's historical continuum to seem deserving of full classic-rocker status (although he's certainly earned it by now) and came across like an apprentice rather than a peer when collaborating with the likes of Bob Dylan (a result of his modesty, not a lack of talent). Still, Petty's aging more unaffectedly than just about any performer of his vintage, and the material on his latest solo project benefits from his relaxed and confident mien. When Petty tries to make big statements, as he did on 2002's disappointing The Last DJ, the strain shows. In contrast, his latest compositions, performed with help from Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and producer Jeff Lynne, are self-contained units that don't pretend to be anything other than good, solid songs. "Saving Grace" brims with low-key wit, "Ankle Deep" is a cheeky strum-along, and "Down South" offers a vivid portrait of a guy traveling to "see my daddy's mistress... pay off every witness." Petty's experience pays off too. And so does Highway Companion.
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment