Wildflowers & All The Rest (4 CD)

Tom Petty

Warner Records, 2020


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Some albums just seem inherently more prone to being mythologized than others.

When it initially appeared in 1994, Tom Petty’s second solo album Wildflowers made a moderate splash, coming on the heels of his mega-successful 1993 Greatest Hits release while embracing a broader range of sounds, from pastoral acoustic numbers (the gorgeous title track) to thundering blues (“Honey Bee”) to a piano ballad featuring Petty himself at the keyboard (memorable closer “Wake Up Time”).

Still, it was a bit of an odd bird, a rangy 15-song, 63-minute “solo” album whose sessions featured every single member of Petty’s ace band the Heartbreakers—lead guitarist and frequent co-writer Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist/harmony vocalist Howie Epstein, and both departing founding drummer Stan Lynch and his replacement Steve Ferrone. When Wildflowers first came out, this long-time TP fan struggled with it a bit, in particular the undercurrent of self-pity running through several of its songs.

Time, however, has been nothing but kind to Wildflowers. A number of critics swooned over it early on, and as the years went by it only seemed to gain luster and acclaim, appearing on more and more “Best of the ’90s” lists. Petty himself seemed buoyed by the groundswell of support for what he had originally envisioned as a 25-track double LP. Five of the 10 unreleased songs ended up being re-recorded for his subsequent Heartbreakers album Songs And Music From She’s The One, but the original Wildflowers versions, as well as most of the unreleased songs from the album’s sessions, remained in the vaults for more than 20 years. In the months prior to his death in October 2017, Petty had returned to what had by then become a passion project for both fans and artist: assembling a deluxe reissue of Wildflowers that would restore the album to its original intended form.

Petty’s vision was finally realized with the recent release of Wildflowers & All The Rest, thoughtfully shepherded by his family, the Heartbreakers, original album producer Rick Rubin and Petty’s personal archivist and late-career production partner Ryan Ulyate. Multiple editions of the set exist; this review is of the four-CD version.

Disc One re-presents the original 15-track Wildflowers album, and it’s well worth listening to again as a preview to the rest of this set. Beyond highlights like exhilarating rocker “You Wreck Me,” wistful rumination “Time To Move On,” hit single “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” closing piano ballad “Wake Up Time,” and the perpetually gorgeous title track, the main interest this time around is the wonderful track-by-track liner notes from Campbell, Tench, Rubin and others. Just for example: Rubin and Campbell reveal that “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was the result of Rubin challenging Petty to write a single, specifically suggesting Steve Miller’s “The Joker” as a starting point. Petty borrowed the latter’s loping cadence and made the rest up on his own.

Disc Two—All The Rest—holds the gold that fans been seeking for so long. And while there are nuggets to be found, it’s worth noting that Petty’s instincts appear to have been good when cutting down his original track list; while it’s all solid material worthy of release, there’s little here that feels more essential than the 15 tracks that did make the cut. The main previously unreleased highlight is the warmly-rendered folk-rock story-song “Leave Virginia Alone,” with Petty’s steady acoustic strums answered by Campbell’s warbly, vibrato’d electric. Another strong cut, the ringing, resonant “Somewhere Under Heaven,” features Campbell covering every instrument in the full arrangement while Petty sings this stately, anthemic number that ended up sitting in the vaults for 20 years before being released on the 2015 my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Entourage film soundtrack.

The other “new” tunes amount to a mixed bag. The languid mid-tempo “Something Could Happen,” the one track here featuring Lynch on drums, never quite lifts off. By contrast, an especially sunny early version of “California” and a shadowy, harpsichord-heavy alternate take of “Hope You Never” offer strong early proofs of the later versions found on She’s The One. An intensely focused solo acoustic rendition of “Climb That Hill” is interesting, even if a later, bruising blues-rock take—much closer to the released version from She’s The One—feels like a fuller expression of the lyric. All The Rest concludes with an earlier alternate take of another She’s The One cut, the suitably Abbey-Road-by-way-of-Pet-Sounds “Hung Up And Overdue” with Ringo Starr behind the drum kit, Mike Campbell doing his best George Harrison impression on slide, and Carl Wilson delivering those trademark Beach Boys harmonies.

Disc Three features Petty’s demo recordings of 15 songs from this era, some of which ended up on the original album, some of which show up on All The Rest, and some of which were abandoned, with lyrical and melodic ideas that were later evolved or cannibalized into subsequent recordings. It’s essentially a disc’s worth of home studio artifacts, an intimate look inside Petty’s creative process that’s fascinating for those who care to ponder the questions they raise.

To wit: what led Petty to abandon a song as strong as “There Goes Angela (Dream Away)”? How did the hit single “You Don’t Know How It Feels” emerge almost fully formed in a demo that lacks only the fullness and dimensionality of the released band version? What instinct led Petty to recycle a pair of lines from the otherwise discarded “A Feeling Of Peace” into the germ for the entire song “It’s Good To Be King”? When and why did a single word change morph the guardedly optimistic line “Coming back to you” into the essence of the spooky dirge “Crawling Back To You”? And what magical talisman did Petty rub before sitting down, hitting “Record,” and improvising the entire song “Wildflowers” off the top of his head on the very first take, from nothing but the title and a basic melody?

Disc Four is a collection of live tracks whose origins date from the Wildflowers era, culled from a wide range of shows between 1995 and 2017, including a couple of outtakes. “You Don’t Know It Feels” and “It’s Good To Be King” get especially expansive readings, full of the sort of exuberant ad-libbing and jamming that only happens live. Petty’s between-song patter adds flavor to numbers like “To Find A Friend,” heard here in a sprightly acoustic rendering at the 2000 Bridge School Benefit. And the most obscure songs on the live disc—Wildflowers-era B-side “Drivin’ Down To Georgia” and concert-only novelty tune “Girl On LSD”—are both adrenalin-fueled joyrides. A triumphant, oversized “You Wreck Me” leads into the only song that could possibly close this set, a luminous reading of “Wildflowers” itself.

Years of anticipation mean that Wildflowers & All The Rest was almost inevitably destined to come up short of Petty fans’ highest hopes for it. From this particular reviewer’s perspective, despite being one of the man’s finer outings, Wildflowers sits somewhat unsteadily on the pedestal on which many have attempted to place it. What this expanded set illustrates, for the most part, is what we already knew: Tom Petty was an exceptionally gifted songwriter and a natural-born performer whose innate charisma and sly sense of humor meant that every moment he stood in front of a microphone held the potential to turn into something special, even if that potential wasn’t always realized.

Beautifully packaged and lovingly annotated with track-by-track commentary from those who knew Petty best, Wildflowers & All The Rest is essential listening for the devoted TP fan, even if it ends up feeling more celebratory than revelatory.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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