A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the Wildflowers & All The Rest 3LP reissue by Tom Petty. Author Rae Carson once wrote that, “Some people, the best ones, are motivated more by the chance to prove themselves than by a command to serve. It is the work itself that calls them onward, especially if they believe they are the only ones who can do it.” In effect, some people do their best work – any kind of work at all, really, but it’s particularly true when one works in the arts – when their backs are against the wall (or they’ve been made to feel that way – which may be a self-imposed condition) and they feel like they need to prove that they deserve the station they’ve been awarded; which ever position or station that may be. In retrospect, it’s very likely that, in 1994, Tom Petty had begun to feel that way. By then, Petty had done not one but two albums with the super-group Traveling Wilburys, and reaped the rewards that the group’s growing reception had afforded him. With those releases, Petty had ascended to the uppermost echelon of entertainers in pop and rock culture; he was regarded as a peer to the likes of Bob Dylan and George Harrison and Jeff Lynn and Roy Orbison – but he didn’t feel any different. By then, sure – he’d released nearly ten albums and some of them had yielded some solid singles, but he didn’t feel like he was anywhere near the stature of cultural significance that the other Wilburys occupied. There’s no way that was an easy perception to absorb – the possibility of it being creatively stifling was probably very real. It’s very possible that Tom Petty felt as though HIS back was against a wall; he needed to be able to accept where he was and answer it. As it would turn out,, Wildflowers would BE that answer – but Tom Petty may very well have been holding his breath to see if it would work. Wildflowers was Petty’s first album for a new record label and he had been talked out of releasing Wildflowers as a two-disc set BY the label. Pared down to one disc, Petty may have felt justified when the album blew up, and elated when the reception of Wildflowers illustrated that the singer did indeed deserve to be numbered among the other members of the Traveling Wilburys. Petty was the peer of rock royalty – and Wildflowers proved it.
Even now, a quarter-century after it was originally released, Wildflowers rings out beautifully – untouched by age or time. The album’s title track opens its A-side gently – almost timidly, which compels listeners to go to IT rather than waiting for it to rush out and meet them. Petty uses acoustic guitar and a capo to line up a gentle and modest expression as he sings romantically to his muse about the images it inspires (“You belong among the wildflowers – you belong in a boat out at sea/ Sail away, kill off the hours, you belong somewhere you feel free” feels a little muddled in print, but plays wonderfully, in performance) and does little to further flesh out the sound (some light piano and one extra vocal harmony color the chord progression), and that inspires listeners to come to HIM; he lays up and plays to his strengths, and listeners have to go to the song in order to find him. It works, of course – the gentility of the song and romance in the lyric sheets will have listeners sighing in contentment.
The real breakthrough (and what ultimately made a fan of this critic as a teenager in 1994) comes immediately following the title track with “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” There, with a really stark and almost military march of a beat, Tom Petty schools those artists breaking sales records with alt-rock hits that were addressing the same subject matter by doing it simply and with a more “classic rock” spirit. As simple as it may be perceived though, the song is still instantly memorable and really holds listeners enchanted; as Dave Grohl (who would play drums with the Heartbreakers when the band appeared on Saturday Night Live in support of Wildflowers) would say about the charm of Nirvana’s music, there’s a simple and almost childlike quality in it which helps to make a great rock song. That is absolutely true of “You Don’t Know How It Feels,”but the best barb in the song (of which there are many) is the title lyric because it shows a kind of youthful innocence (any kid would use the lyrics in the chorus in self-defense during an argument with his/her parents), but also carries with it age and experience. That is, very simply, not the kind of magic which just comes along every day; there feels like there’s a whole lot more to it than that and, just after the song lets out, listeners will be clamouring to find out what more there is to find.
While the dry-eyed reflection which characterizes “Time To Move On” exemplifies a sort of “lessons learned” warmth which often marked a standard-issue album track for Tom Petty (and does here, as well), the A-side ends with “You Wreck Me,” the best “hard luck/love lost” lament set to a raucous rhythm since Petty had set the standard for such material in 1979 with “Don’t Do Me Like That.” This time though, all of the lessons Petty learned as the tape rolled in the intervening years (like the tone refined on Let Me Up and Into The Great Wide Open, the pop discipline showcased on Full Moon Fever and the tightly-wound craft of Damn The Torpedoes) are bundled and wrapped tightly into a three-and-a-half-minute pop song, and the results are the kind of timeless achievement that even a player with achievements already to his name (of which Tom Petty had many, by then) recognizes as being a special kind of high water mark to be proud of.
Of course, because Wildflowers was sequenced for CD play [while it was released on CD, cassette and vinyl in ’94, vinyl was far from the focus format at the time –ed], that the B-side of the album opens with the deep down-note which is “It’s Good To Be King” feels incredibly awkward and really only gets over because those who were introduced to the album when it was originally released recognize the song’s quality – particularly when it comes to lines like “Oh, I’ll be king when dogs have wings.” The echoes of having worked with George Harrison for Traveling Wilburys echo their way through “It’s Only A Broken Heart” with strong results, but pale in comparison to “Honey Bee” – which is arguably the best rock song in the singer’s late career.
To this day, “Honey Bee” remains a master class in rock songwriting [although it is also a little troublesome, but more on that later –ed]. Here, Petty’s signature Fender Telecaster howls like a beast unleashed from the moment the song opens, and there is just no looking back from there; the singer lets himself off the leash as he cat calls and kisses all the girls to make them cry, and only digresses to innuendo when it serves the rhyme scheme (see lines like “She likes to call me King Bee, she likes to buzz ’round my tree” and “Her Juju-bees are so nice, she kissed my third cousin twice”) and only reaches the point where he has obviously gone too far when lines like “Don’t say a word ’bout what we’re doin’” and “Don’t be afraid – not gonna hurt you – I wouldn’t hurt my little honey bee” brush a little too close to echoing “Me too” sentiments in the twenty-first century.
After the awkwardness, “Don’t Fade On Me” keeps an unnerving and almost fearful quality about it to close the side and, while compelling, the song doesn’t feel as though it fits in very well with the spirits invoked elsewhere on the album. Part of the problem may be that, much like Wildflowers‘ title track, “Don’t Fade On Me” sees The Heartbreakers scaled back to just Petty and Mike Campbell together, and the amount of open space just leaves too much room for listeners’ minds to wander. It is a little problematic, needless to say, but the combination of the energy of “Honey Bee” (if not the lyrical subject matter) and the worry that “Don’t Fade On Me” inspires will cause listeners to dig hard into the C-side of Wildflowers – even if it’s to see if Petty has exhausted himself.
While the C-side doesn’t exactly start well (“Hard On Me” keeps up the overwrought angle set by “Don’t Fade On Me”), it does recover in spectacular fashion with the “Peter Gunn” update embodied by “Cabin Down Below.” There, Petty takes the energy from “Honey Bee” and makes it less focused – which actually makes it work pretty brilliantly. Here, the singer’s Telecaster bends and resolves perfectly every time and Petty himself leaves the subject matter in the lyric sheet just vague enough to afford listeners the chance to fill in the blanks themselves. The result is a great “rock for rock’s sake” song and invigorates the album’s running wonderfully after the more overwrought turns it had previously taken. After that, “To Find A Friend” revisits the spirit of the album’s title track and then gets even better with “A Higher Place,” which closes the side.
Now, it could be argued that, given the directions in which Wildflowers had already reached in its running, “A Higher Place” really bows to convention, but it still gets over thanks to the unadulterated quality of the cut. Here, Tom Petty plays to his strengths (“We’ve got someplace to be, and we’ve gotta get there right now! So let’s get there together!” – those aren’t the lyrics, but it is a familiar spirit) and wins because that’s all that really needs to happen in that particular moment, and will get listeners onto the final side of the album.
…And the final side feels an awful lot like a victory lap, from note one. “House In The Woods” opens with the same kind of “We’ve reached the summit” spirit that Lynyrd Skynyrd tapped with “Tuesday’s Gone” and seals the deal with the lyrics, “What can I do but love you for the rest of my days.” “House In The Woods” would be a pretty storybook ending for this album in its own right, but it keeps rounding the bases with the slightly whimsical “Crawling Back To You” and the last piano wash of “Wake Up Time.” Now, really, these last three songs don’t accomplish a whole lot – the album has already ascended to some impressive peaks and explored some beautiful valleys – the last three songs are just a good wind-up to respect where the album has already been. Could they have been left off? Probably but, after having run the distance with Wildflowers (to another label, with a great batch of songs) it’s perfectly reasonable to let the singer have this moment – he deserves it.
Now, about a quarter of a century after Wildflowers‘ original release, no debate about the album’s quality existed – for anyone other than for the singer himself. As the story goes, the last project that Tom Petty was working on before his death in 2017 was a reissue endeavor which would see Wildflowers reunited with the ten other songs that he had originally pitched to Warner, which would have made Wildflowers a double album [the second disc of which was to be titled & All The Rest –ed]. Apparently, Petty was still very committed to the project so, out of respect to him, Warner has reissued the album on vinyl as Tom Petty envisioned it.
Like many “second discs,” & All The Rest retains some of the flavor of Wildflowers, but is not at all the same sort of affair. It is not as “rocky” and is consistently more stripped down. “Something Could Happen” opens the first side of the final disc in this (it’s the E-side, for those keeping score), and really sounds like it is the song intended to represent the end of this run. On a piano in a minor key, Petty patters desperately in a way which (again) bears a fair resemblance to George Harrison, in spirit. Discussions of disillusionment but with an undercurrent of hope push the song along and can be a solid entry into the Petty songbook to the right mind on the right day, but it stands in far too stark a contrast to the other music on Wildflowers proper – so listeners need a break between one set and the other (read: this is not an ‘all in one sitting’ affair). “Leave Virginia Alone” (the second cut on the side) is far superior in tone to its predecessor as it finds its way to a Petty strength (talk of girls and cars) and improves still further as the singer finds the strength and resolve to “Climb That Hill Blues” – a nearly-finished demo which is fantastically affecting with nothing but an acoustic guitar and Petty’s voice in the mix. “Confusion Wheel” plays in a similar way to “Climb That Hill Blues” before the side finds its way to classic Petty with “California” – which closes the side. Sure – it’s a little fluffy, but hearing the cut which feels like a throwback to where Tom Petty was two decades prior to the release of Wildflowers is a pretty captivating exercise.
…And while the E-side of Wildflowers & All The Rest did feature a couple of great, passing sparks, the final side of the set blanches them all as it opens with “Harry Green.” Again, the song is very much in Tom Petty’s wheelhouse (singing memories of a hometown friend over an arpeggiated acoustic guitar, but maybe it was because the song was originally left off of Wildflowers that it feels like a particularly sweet secret treat. Here, Petty almost whispers or murmurs his vocal performance (as though he was recording it late at night, and didn’t want to wake anyone) and it’s hard not to get pulled into the song and strain to catch every last syllable. Comparatively, “Hope You Never” (the song which follows it) isn’t bad but just isn’t quite as good as “Harry Green,” and “Somewhere Under Heaven” (which sounds a little like a late-period Who song) suffers the same fate. “Climb That Hill” (a much more rocky interpretation than the song of a similar name from the previous side) shines much more brightly with its full arrangement, and then gets closed out by the sublime and sort of Lennon-esque “Hung Up and Overdue.” It’s a solid enough close for the “outtakes” portion of this set, even if it is an obvious extravagance (and doesn’t really imply that there might be more gold buried in the seven-or nine-disc incarnations of this collection).
“So is this reissue worth the asking price,” you plead? Yes reader – this 3LP edition of Wildflowers & All The Rest is absolutely, positively worth the asking price; the remastering job applied to the songs which originally appeared on Wildflowers makes them absolutely sparkle, and the look into what the album’s auteur wanted to have on the album – what he spent so much time working on, toward the end of his life – is very revealing. For those reasons too, it’s very easy to get lost in this reissue of Wildflowers; the songs remain perfectly untarnished by time. [Bill Adams]
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers – Into the Great Wide Open (reissue)
The 3LP version of Wildflowers & All The Rest is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.