As of right now, the rerelease of 1994’s Wildflowers, Tom Petty’s second “solo” album (and accompanying second disc of the originally intended double album) is number 1 on the rock charts. A well-deserved achievement for the album that is kind of a cult classic. How could it be that an album that sports a number 1 hit with ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ and four other charting entries: ‘You Wreck Me’ (No. 2), ‘It’s Good to Be King’ (No. 6), ‘A Higher Place’ (No. 12) and ‘Cabin Down Below’ (No. 29) be a “cult classic”??? Well, this album came right at peak Petty. He was coming off of mega-hit albums Full Moon Fever and Into The Great Wide Open which dominated radio and music video channels as well as being part of arguably the best supergroup in rock The Traveling Wilburys. These Jeff Lynne-produced multi-platinum albums were such juggernauts, it’s hard to imagine changing course mid-stream.
That’s exactly what Petty did. He sent the band away again as he had for Full Moon Fever so he could get new inspiration to write in a different vein …but of course, Mike had to come along. Campbell was the co-captain, he bounced everything off of Mike and Mike was the origin of so many classic Heartbreakers parts. And no one could play keys quite like Benmont Tench, one of the most highly sought after session players in L.A. Gotta have Benmont. And Howie was great not just on bass but with vocal harmonies too. Basically, we’re just over Stan.
Stan Lynch had been the on again off again thorn in the band’s side since their breakout album Damn The Torpedoes. When it worked it worked, when it didn’t, it didn’t. By ’94 his style and personality had diverged for the band so much that they had to cut him loose. Enter Steve Ferrone, a seasoned and professional studio veteran. An Englishman who came from lauded soul bands Bloodstone and Average White Band and had played with everybody. Tom and Steve hit it off and he remained the band’s steady freight train until its last show on September 25th, 2017.
Then there’s the choice to hire producer Rick Rubin this time around. Today we know Rubin as the all-around sound guru who can shape any genre that gets thrown at him but in 1993 he was pretty much “that hip hop guy” with acts like Run DMC, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy as well as the odd Slayer album. All hard-hitting, pin the needle productions. Eventually, he started taking on more mainstream rock material in the early 90s with The Black Crowes’ biggest hit album and a solo disc for Mick Jagger. His work with Petty, as well as a string of Johnny Cash records, solidified Rubin as the man with the Midas touch. Not only good for the ragers but the subtle records too.
I think that’s why Wildflowers feels like a cult classic and a sleeper hit. It’s a nuanced subtle record, far removed from the sky-high drum reverb and meticulously tracked albums of his 80s stardom. Wildflowers took personal to another level. It’s the depth added by the deeper cuts that make it such a loved classic. The title track was never released as a single, too tender for FM radio at the height of grunge. Yet now, ask a girl what her favourite Petty track is and it’s likely gonna make the top 3. He was able to make a hit record that felt real and honest and authentic and anthemic and revelatory all at the same time. The original record was teeming with these great moments and now, with the long-awaited second disc finally seeing the light of day, there are even more gems from a ’94 Petty to dive in to.
In Part One, we’ll explore the original release in depth. We’ll look at the added nuance of finally being able to hear the album on vinyl, up until now original copies were extremely rare as the album dropped right as vinyl was trounced by CDs in the great media war. In Part Two we’ll examine the rest of the 9LP package including the previously unreleased second disc as well as home recordings, a live album, and alternate studio takes. There’s a lot to dig in to, so roll up a joint, let’s git… to the point.
The first thing that strikes you is the pristine clarity of Petty’s jangly strummed chords on the opener ‘Wildflowers’. This was always a very well recorded record with a focus on purity of tone over arena-filling effects but this new version cut straight to vinyl from the master tapes reveals even more depth of timbre. It doesn’t take much of a strum to get his acoustic guitar ringing like a bell along with that brilliantly-added triangle. Petty’s straight forward caring lyrics danced around by Tench’s fairytale piano.
‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ is a JAM. Predicated on a similar boom boom-CAH to ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’, this track is a masterful ode to “the hang”. Equally good at 5 pm at the crack of a cold one or out in the woods, camping with the gang. The track hit number 1, is well-loved in the Petty pantheon, and like most Petty hits, there’s a streak of revelation beyond just “let’s get fucked up and have a good time”. The title lyric is a thinker and Petty leans into it hard with his sly, sneering croon. The openness of the vinyl remaster really brings up that great shaker that propels us through along with Ferrone’s mile-deep pocketed groove.
Next up is one of those tracks that gave Petty’s career that extra dimension. A track that hits you just at the right time and put a spring in your step. ‘Time to Move On’ is an anti-anthem for transitioning into the next chapter of your life. Simultaneously triumphant and understated, masterfully crafted. Filled with that wistful yet jaunty character that pervades the crevices of the record. The band gives this track an inexorable rhythm without ever losing their cool. Epstein and Ferrone lock into a skipping beat with Tench’s light airy keys serving as the highway breeze. Through all this Campbell weaves a gorgeous meandering slide guitar that could not more perfectly echo the lyrics Petty insistently delivers.
‘You Wreck Me’ is another one of those beautifully simple tracks that Petty and the Heartbreakers just slay. It jumps out of your radio and pushes your foot to the gas. The sonic sibling track to 1987’s ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ is just three chords and a quick bridge but there’s nothing else you need. The original “You rock me, baby” lyric was a little too pedestrian but the switch to “wreck” locked it all into place. How do you beat a line like “I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants/You’ll be the girl at the high school dance”?? It sticks in your head for decades from the moment you hear it.
Four tracks in, one side of a 9LP set and we’ve already got a fistful of classics.
If you’re looking for the album’s masterpiece, a real good case can be made for ‘It’s Good to Be King’. As mentioned above, the track did quite well on the mainstream charts and FM radio but it is a wily, subversive track. It’s a hit with the vibe of a deep cut. Petty’s sarcasm is dialled up to 10, so is the band’s dreamy playing. The Heartbreakers have often blended nebulous ethereal parts into their classic rock n roll but nowhere is it stronger than on this song. Right off the bat, the mournful tone strikes a stark contrast with the idea of life on top. Each one of Petty’s lines comes tipped with a venomous questioning inflection. Simultaneously implying the tragic loneliness of being on top while dismissing it all as a pipe dream. This track showcases why bringing the tight-knit band in on the process really elevated the songs. Ferrone’s drumming is somehow both rock steady and floating untethered. Tench’s dark descending lines tie the whole song together and Campbell hits new ground with a luscious tone and iconic solo. Right to their last tour, this song was included in their set as the showcase of the band, often extending fr best it’s already lengthy outro. And there’s the orchestra backing! What a track!
‘Only a Broken Heart’ is a classic 70s country-western ballad without the twang. On the vinyl, Benmont’s mellotron flutes leap out of the track like never before tying into mid-’60s-era Beatles. The album’s heaviest point comes with the unstoppable ‘Honey Bee’. Guitars fire out a monster riff while Ferrone comes down like a ton of bricks on the 2 and 4. This is one of the biggest, ballsiest songs of his career and counterbalances the album’s lighter fare. The first LP ends with ‘Don’t Fade on Me’, Petty’s bluesy Robert Johnson moment. The back of the barn late at night track. Chris Stapleton recently remarked that among the many inspirations he’d taken from Petty was the idea to have a track like this on every album to give it another layer of depth.
The second half bares hidden gems that get overshadowed by the huge impact of the first half’s singles. ‘Hard On Me’, ‘House in the Woods’, ‘Cabin Down Below’, and ‘A Higher Place’ are admittedly more average than the rest but are by no means skippable. They round out the album nicely. Though it’s perhaps putting those last two out as singles rather than some of the other strong tracks like “Honey Bee’, ‘Wildflowers’, or even ‘Crawling Back to You’ that kept the original release at #8 rather than #1 on the Billboard charts. Choosing the right single to release seems like such a minor concern now that everything is available all the time through streaming but back then, your choices for the radio really mattered.
Wildflowers came right in the midst of the breakdown of his marriage with Jane Benyo. The papers hadn’t been signed but all those frayed nerves and hard choices were laid bare. Echo is often labelled his “divorce” album but in truth that was the aftermath years after the fact. Wildflowers was written while he was in the thick of it. Because of this, Petty was writing his most transparent gut-wrenchingly beautiful tracks in this period that had not yet succumb to the massive weight of resignation and mourning that befell Echo. ‘To Find a Friend’ is a deeply fascinating track for a three-minute ditty. Thematically, it’s the successor to Full Moon Fever hit ‘Yer So Bad’, a third-person account of a breaking marriage. Yet on this track, you can sense that the main character is Petty seeing his future entanglements unfolding before him. “And the days went by like paper in the wind/Everything changed, then changed again/It’s hard to find a friend”. Petty says it like no one else can with his ghost of memory croon. Through the painful lyrics, there’s a life-goes-on bounce. It’s Ringo! Lending a skiffle beat that pre-dates his Beatle days to his first band The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group.
For a non-single to still be a live mainstay two decades later, especially on a 40th anniversary tour, speaks volumes. That’s the case with late album masterpiece ‘Crawling Back to You’. The band finds lucrative textural territory again exploring a dreamy space. Tench’s inviting piano lures you into Petty’s idiosyncratic lyrics of the push and pull of romance. The album closer is one of Petty’s now-classic “look in the mirror” intervention tracks. A sauntering acquiescence to what you can’t change and an urge to change the things that you can. The song rounds out an exceptionally reflective album from an artist who, at the end of his life, acknowledged this album as the very best of his life’s work.
“It ended up haunting him later in life. I remember running into him on the beach several years ago and he said he was ‘afraid’ of ‘Wildflowers.’ He said it was his favourite of everything he’s done and couldn’t grasp why.” -Rick Rubin
Wildflowers took on this legendary status among fans for good reason. For an artist who’s fans are clamouring for every honest morsel of truth from the writer, this is the goldmine. An album with heavy rockers and quiet think pieces, demonstrations of unchecked bravado and admissions of deep vulnerability. Ultimately, just brilliantly crafted, unfettered rock n roll. On his final tour in 2017 when the Heartbreakers were doing a 40th anniversary tour, the kind of thing that’s traditionally “hits-only”, Petty chose to play five selections from Wildflowers. More than any other album. He loved this album. In the years before his death, the project to rerelease the album along with its companion second disc was being planned and schemed but Petty wouldn’t live to see it reach the light of day. It’s a welcome gift three years later.
Next up…All the Rest!