Wildflowers was not the first Tom Petty album to have had its initial ambitions thwarted somewhat between conception and release. A decade or so earlier, Petty had set about Southern Accents, intended as a double-album state of the nation address surveying the Deep South, commemorating its music and contemplating its contradictions. The finished product was certainly far from bad, but it was nevertheless also a stretch from where Petty had once envisioned it taking him, and his listeners.
Wildflowers, similarly, was originally sketched as a 25-song double album, before being trimmed, at the suggestion of a nervous record label, to a nevertheless generous 15. The entry-level version of this reissue is that aborted 25-track double, scaling up to a 5CD Super-Deluxe edition that includes the extended Wildflowers plus contemporary studio outtakes, home demos, alternative studio cuts and live recordings, some of them previously unreleased.
Wildflowers was billed as a solo album, but this seemed a hair-splitting distinction. All of the Heartbreakers appear thoughout, aside from recently departed drummer Stan Lynch, replaced by Steve Ferrone, who would be formally inducted into the group in short order. Give or take the saxophone section and pedal steel on “House In The Woods”, a few guest sessioneers and a couple of celebrity cameos (Ringo Starr plays drums on “To Find A Friend”, Carl Wilson sings along on “Honey Bee”), Wildflowers is a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album in all but name.
By that exacting standard, Wildflowers is a very good Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album. What the 25-track edition makes thrillingly and bafflingly clear, however, is that it was less than it might have been. It may have been the heedless profligacy often witnessed in people who know they have tapped a rich seam, but a lot of extraordinary material was left lying about.
On its own merits, the 15-track version of Wildflowers holds up well. Petty’s previous solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, had seen production substantially handled by ELO’s Jeff Lynne, one of a procession of relatively genteel British foils – Dave Stewart, George Harrison et al – Petty sought throughout his career, in the manner of an anxious colonial worried that his rough edges would be frowned upon by the aristocracy. Wildflowers was produced by Rick Rubin, who – though he later acknowledged admiring Full Moon Fever to the point of obsession – seemed to get that Petty’s rough edges were his most appealing traits. He recorded Petty (and, to all intents and purposes, the Heartbreakers) live in the studio, and Wildflowers sounds it.
It also stands as something of a classic of the midlife crisis genre. Petty, who was approaching both his mid-forties and a divorce, offers little hollow bravado on this front. He kicks off the pretty acoustic trill “To Find A Friend” with, “In the middle of his life/He left his wife/And ran off to be bad/Boy, it was sad.” Among the last words heard on the album, on the fragile piano ballad “Wake Up Time”, which sounds something of a memo from Petty to himself, are, “You were so cool back in high school… what happened?” (There must have been many put-upon suburban dads among the millions who bought Wildflowers who found themselves thinking, ‘Come on, man, you’re still Tom goddamn Petty.’)
It would be unfair, however, to characterise Wildflowers as nought but Petty’s maudlin description of the view of his own navel. It is rarely a happy record, but when it roars and rages it reminds of what had been instantly arresting about Petty (and the Heartbreakers) when they’d emerged from Gainesville via Los Angeles nearly two decades previously. “You Wreck Me” is a wilful throwback to their first albums, all new wave nerve and Southern rock swagger, a skinny leather tie lashed around a scarlet neck. “Cabin Down Below” is a swampy choogle evocative of prime Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Honey Bee” is a leery boogie which, amid formidable competition, may be the least subtle metaphorical deployment of the titular insect in rock’n’roll history.
But aside from the above, and leaving aside the odd askew excursion, like the bewildering, near-prog “House In The Woods”, the dominant tones of Wildflowers are fretful acoustic guitars and mournful pianos. The title track is neatly illustrative, Petty keening yearningly over a trebly strum, simple piano echo and gently brushed drums. The lyric is notionally an address to someone whom the narrator believes deserves better (“You belong among the wildflowers,” etc), but it’s hard not to hear it as Petty thinking of himself as someone who’d rather, right now, be tiptoeing through the tulips. Similarly, the lead single – and thumping hit – “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, is another melancholy fantasy of escape from loneliness, for all that the first lines of its chorus (“Let me get to the point/Let’s roll another joint”) would subsequently see it semi-mistakenly embraced by arena crowds as a rollicking party anthem.
The 10 tracks eventually sliced from Wildflowers don’t seem to have been culled for any coherent rhyme or reason: the virtues of the original album are abundant among the omitted tracks. “California” is a wry entreaty to Petty’s adopted home state, set to a taut country-rock trundle, and one of a few Wildflowers cast-offs that ended up in Edward Burns’ 1996 film She’s The One. The soundtrack album ended up reaching No 15 in the US, not far off the No 8 managed by Wildflowers.
“Harry Green” is a harmonica-lashed, husky talking blues of Paul Simonesque poise, recalling a childhood friend who, before dying too young, left a lasting impression (“We met in Spanish class/Helped me out of a spot I was in/Stopped a redneck from kicking my ass”). Whether real or fictional, the tale is deftly written and beautifully sung, Petty excavating the depths of his register. “Leave Virginia Alone” might even be the best thing on either disc: a sumptuous, Springsteen-ish elegy to some maddeningly unattainable muse at once “as hot as Georgia asphalt” and “as high as a Georgia palm tree”, which Petty sings with the rueful dolour of a man who has only half-convinced himself he’s best off out of it.
Of the three further discs available for big spenders, the home demos and alternate versions are – as is usually the way of these things – mostly likely to be listened to once, out of curiosity. But there are charming moments among the demos – the wounds that inspired “Leave Virginia Alone” are arguably more exposed in this intimate setting. The alternate versions were mostly designated alternate versions for a reason, though the more acoustic-y “You Wreck Me” emphasises a descendance from “Running Down A Dream”. Predictably, however, the live tracks, recorded between 1995 and what turned out to be Petty’s final tour in 2017, are astounding: on stage, Petty seemed comfortable to slough off the shackles of decorum with which he often encumbered himself in the studio, and remember that he sang in a singularly fabulous rock’n’roll band.
Petty always thought highly of Wildflowers: at his last show, at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25, 2017, just a week before he died, the album furnished five of the 17 songs he and the Heartbreakers played that night. It sounds even better at this extended – and intended – length.