Such a variety of transportation devices are name-checked on Highway Companion, Tom Petty's third solo album, that you half expect the final track to be about Jet Skiing. (Almost: The song, a beautiful lament named ''The Golden Rose,'' actually concerns a boat trip.) A plane, a horse, a helicopter, a train, and enough cars to fill a small parking lot are all featured as Petty's various protagonists journey in search of things they think they need (love, sex, beer), often to end up back where they started. As Petty croons on the aptly titled ''Square One'': ''It took a world of trouble, took a world of tears/Yeah, it took a long time to get back here.''
Highway Companion itself marks a return for the singer-songwriter. As with Petty's first album without longtime backing band the Heartbreakers, 1989's Full Moon Fever, Highway was co-produced by ELO chief (and Petty's fellow Traveling Wilbury) Jeff Lynne, who again keeps his more baroque knob-twiddling tendencies in check. The result is a close sonic sibling to Full Moon, though it contains fewer out-and-out rockers. It is also a huge improvement on 2002's Heartbreakers-assisted The Last DJ, a cantankerous critique of the record industry that seemed to reflect a broader dissatisfaction with life on Petty's part.
Not that the new album is short on bleak moments. The many quests described in Highway are fraught with problems, be they physical (an unreadable note in ''This Old Town''; bald tires on the spacey, jazz-tinged ''Night Driver'') or emotional (''Gonna see my daddy's mistress/Gonna buy back her forgiveness,'' he sings on ''Down South,'' while first single ''Saving Grace'' depicts the hunt for salvation by a woman who has traveled so far she no longer knows who she is). Yet these songs are, in their melancholic way, quite excellent, with Petty demonstrating a creative joie de vivre even when spinning tales decidedly lacking in joie. Had Bob Dylan actually penned the gnomically evocative (and quite Dylanesque) ''Down South,'' it would be far from his worst effort. ''Saving Grace,'' meanwhile, is a great, ominous rumble of a track, somewhat reminiscent of John Lee Hooker's ''Boom Boom,'' that boasts a raft of spiky lead guitar interjections. Elsewhere, ''Flirting With Time'' features a memorably Byrdsian chorus, while the heartbreaking ''Damaged by Love'' is almost as good as the Petty track it most resembles, ''Free Fallin'.''
True, the clunky-chorused horse tale ''Ankle Deep'' belongs in the songwriting equivalent of a glue factory. But for most of its length, Highway Companion is not just a return to square one it's also a true return to form.