Tom Petty

Warner Brothers Records, 1994


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Tom Petty is one of the great American rock and roll songwriters of the 20th century.

A simple statement; now, defend it.

As an item of evidence, Wildflowers offers some comfort to both the prosecution and the defense. Petty is responsible for a collection of songs I consider true classics, full of detail, originality and rich emotional resonance, supported by strong melodies and sharp ensemble playing from his Heartbreakers. Here the defense submits for your consideration “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Even the Losers,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “The Waiting,” “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down.” Recess for half an hour, give these a listen, and if you don't agree I'll have no choice but to shout you down with objections.

Put in the dock, Wildflowers makes for a fairly odd "solo" album, inasmuch as a passel of Heartbreakers appear on virtually every song and longtime collaborator/lead guitarist Mike Campbell co-produces with Petty and Rick Rubin. (Founding drummer Stan Lynch is the only missing party, and he’d soon be missing from the Heartbreakers for good.) my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

That aside, it does contribute several new songs to Petty's catalogue of potential future classics. First among them is the opening title tune—a somewhat startling mood-setter, a positively pastoral acoustic number in which Petty transforms his characteristic nasal, twangy voice into a surprisingly convincing croon as he renders warm sentiments to the object of his affection. The guy's clearly struck out into new territory (Mike Campbell on... harpsichord??) and you're immediately curious about where the rest of the album is going to take you.

Up next, big single “You Don't Know How It Feels” inspires decidedly mixed feelings; it has a nice groove and Petty’s solid harp work and a couple of rangy solos from TP and Mike Campbell add spice. There’s just something about the faintly self-pitying lyric that’s always bothered me. The road-wizened “Time To Move On’ and the driving, dynamic rocker “You Wreck Me” follow in quick succession, building a strong defense for Wildflowers right up front.

And that’s where things start to go a little sideways. To the extent the prosecution has a case to make, it’s this: one of Petty's greatest gifts—he is nothing if not prolific—is perhaps also his greatest weakness: he does not seem to be as talented an editor of his huge volume of work as he is a writer.

Among the 15 songs on this album, “Wildflowers,” “You Wreck Me” and the first-time-ever-for-Tom piano ballad “Wake-Up Time” are flat-out brilliant. Several other tracks (notably “Time To Move On,” the jangle-fest "A Higher Place" and the intense, twin-acoustic “Don’t Fade On Me”) are excellent additions to his body of work. That’s a substantial batch of great songs, but still only amounts to three-fifths of this album. The rest is spottier material that ranges from silly (“Honey Bee”) to maudlin (“Crawling Back to You”) to just not that interesting (“It’s Good To Be King”). At least the sassy “Bee” and earthy “Cabin Down Below” offer some big, bluesy guitar and a chuckle or two.

In closing, the defense wishes to note that Mr. Petty has held his own in the studio and on the road with the likes of Bob Dylan (not to mention Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne) and appears a likely first-ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible in 2001. And if the prosecution elects in its closing statement to note that Mr. Petty's catalogue may be one of the better arguments around for the existence of greatest hits albums, well, I'd be hard-pressed to object to that.

Rating: B+

User Rating: B+



© 1997 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.