Into The Great Wide Open

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

MCA Records, 1991

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


After a creative slump that lingered through much of the 80s, Tom Petty rejuvenated his music and his career with his 1989 solo disc Full Moon Fever. Really, though, the rebirth had begun when he and the Heartbreakers took the gig as Bob Dylan’s touring band in 1986, which took them into a different musical space and prefaced the formation of the Traveling Wilburys, featuring Petty, Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Roy Orbison.

Lynne, who had just produced Harrison’s comeback album Cloud Nine, went on to co-produce and co-write much of Full Moon Fever, which became one of Petty’s biggest albums to date.  So it was only human to think “Hey, if it worked great on my solo record, why not try it with the whole band?” The result was 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open.

The thing about Lynne is, he does one sound and he does it well: heavy-strummed acoustic rhythm guitars, echoey drums, dense arrangements, rockabilly beats topped with Beatlesque harmonies, stir and you’re done. Every time. It’s obviously been a successful formula for him, and the style felt fresh for TP when he adopted it for my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Full Moon Fever. On Into The Great Wide Open, though, it has the effect of rendering the entire album (and band) beige and samey. The Heartbreakers, a dynamic unit whose best work has involved sharp arrangements with a lot of separation between the instruments and space for individual solos (see: “Breakdown,” “Listen To Her Heart,” “The Waiting,” etc.) feel here like they’ve been relegated to the status of Jeff Lynne’s session band. This, to say the least, is not a good thing.

To be fair, there are a number of solid tunes here. “Learning To Fly” plays to Lynne’s strengths, soaring chords and harmonies working together to achieve the requisite lift-off, though the highlight is still the deft, concise solo Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell splices into the middle of the song like a surgeon correcting a heart defect. The title track meets much the same fate, a rather predictable lyric buoyed by a strong melody and Campbell’s shearing solos. “Kings Highway” and “Out In The Cold” also achieve good momentum, even if they don’t quite scale the heights of Petty’s best. And “Makin’ Some Noise,” co-written by Campbell, lives up to its title and adds a welcome dash of playfulness to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the album is a blur of similar-sounding songs with relatively uninspired lyrics that function like musical Chinese food -- it tastes okay going down, but an hour later you’ve forgotten you ever ate. Even guest harmonies from the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn on the appropriately jangly “All The Wrong Reasons” can’t lift this disc out of the grips of mediocrity.

Into The Great Wide Open isn’t a terrible album -- the songs are too good for that -- the arrangements and samey production just leave you with a final product that's much less dynamic and memorable than this band has proven itself capable of. Petty’s decision to go a different direction from here and try working with keep-it-simple-stupid producer Rick Rubin was undoubtedly the right call.

Rating: B-

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© 2008 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 MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.