An overdue dream come true: Tom Petty’s complete vision of Wildflowers arrives
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Personally speaking, the anticipation for this release has bordered on the ridiculous.
Years ago, Tom Petty mentioned in interviews that he left nearly half of Wildflowers, his ground-breaking 1994 solo album, on the cutting room floor, and that he’d like to get the rest of it out at some point. From there, other projects came and went, he toured with the Heartbreakers, and all-too-quickly, he was gone.
In the meantime, his music went through a massive and immediate rediscovery process, both for the unfamiliar and those of us who had been listening for ages. What might’ve just been seen as a career of pleasing radio tunes is suddenly reassessed, deserving praise heaped atop the music that was brilliant all the way. And the notion of Wildflowers and its genius transferred from this open secret among the knowing to a straight acknowledgement of its transcendent value — Wildflowers is a statement. It took a while to get the full picture of it, though.
But here it is. Two years after the revelatory An American Treasure set and three years since the man left us, Wildflowers & All the Rest arrives. It’s an immersive experience into the making of a classic album, from its demos to music that overflowed from the original record to glimpses of how the songs continued to evolve on stage, housed in an old-fashioned bound record album set that takes up an intimidating space on the shelf. It’s fitting, of course, for an album that intimidated its creator in the years after its completion. But it’s also a massively satisfying listen.
Exalting the greatness of this particular record probably isn’t necessary here. But to be sure, this a loving, dedicated look at the apex of Petty’s artistic life, and taking the traditional 15-track album and expanding it into the 10 songs completes one of the unfinished desires of the man before his passing. It’s easy to quibble with why these tracks were left by the wayside, just as it’s understandable that he and the record company wanted to spare mid-1990s music buyers from having to pay $24 for a bulky double-CD jewel case. Complicating all of this is how perfectly the primary album held together all these years. But the fact that a limited number of people eagerly spent $500 for the most deluxe pressing of this package illustrates as well as anything how times change.
Anyway. It’s here now. Beyond the original double album are a treasure trove of home demos, live tracks and unreleased recordings that paint an entire picture of the Wildflowers era, from the conception of the song to their second life beyond the stereo. Getting this onto the stereo was a priority, though.
When the package was finally delivered to my back door, listening intently was a long-awaited ritual about to come to pass. I got the set out of the box, out of its plastic, set the records down, pulled out the first LP, placed it on the turntable and just let it run, interrupted only by flipping sides and the occasional bathroom break. About five hours of continuous music are stored within the bound pages of the album, beginning the slow absorption of the material that will surely continue in the days and weeks and months and years to come.
The original record was a classic with few peers, and this remains the case. The new mastering reveals little details and quirks that were lost on the original, like the harmonics at the end of “Hard on Me,” or the way the mellotron lingers while “Only a Broken Heart” drifts into the ether. The acoustic guitars ripple on “Don’t Fade On Me,” with each slide over the frets captured and broadcast. It’s as vivid an image of the music as we civilians have ever experienced.
And a note about the vinyl edition of this: the depth and clarity here is through the roof. The warmth of the transfer puts the listener in the room across from Petty as he navigates his demos, but the true revelations come from the original 15 tracks of Wildflowers. I’ve owned this album on CD and on the original vinyl issue, and neither compare to the job done here. This was cut straight from the original tapes, with a new master developed specifically for vinyl, and the results show. A ridiculously priced, high-end system isn’t necessary to appreciate the sound quality — it jumps off the record, from the needle to even the most skeptical of ears.
Imagining Petty’s original running order for Wildflowers will have to remain a guessing game for individual playlists. Barring that, these additional 10 songs do more than merely support the original record. They hang with the rest track-for-track, to the point that “Hung Up And Overdue,” bolstered by Carl Wilson’s harmony vocals, works as an equally effective closing track as “Wake Up Time.” It’d be fascinating to know which would have served as the original coda in Petty’s mind.
As is, the songs support each other, and the entire piece is strengthened because of it. Context matters, and never is that more apparent than on “Leave Virginia Alone.” Just the title would conjure the sound of Rod Stewart’s voice in my head, via his recording that became a hit circa 1995. And when this version was released as a single shortly ahead of this set’s release, it was hard to hear how it fit with the rest of Wildflowers, and harder still to shake Stewart’s reading of the song. Magically, that’s not an issue anymore. Following on the heels of “Something Could Happen,” it is perfectly at home in sound, execution, pace, placement, everything. And Rod’s rendition of the song immediately became a distant memory, at best.
Another aspect that comes out a bit more than had previously is a theme of uncertainty amid progress. This is laid bare on “Confusion Wheel,” a mostly acoustic rumination that builds as the author’s anxiety grows. He’s at once resigned and hopefully through the verses, adamant (or at least conditioned) to believe that he’ll rise above whatever weight is holding him down. But he betrays the bravado on the chorus:
“And I don’t know how to love
And I don’t know who to trust
And I don’t know what I did.”
Coming on the heels of continued personal strife that will eventually end his first marriage, the fractures growing within the Heartbreakers, concern over delivering the first album of a new contract and only-Petty-knows-what-else was happening in his world and in his head at that moment.
There’s more than internal strife happening here, of course. “Harry Green” is a hint at a direction Petty would follow later on albums like Highway Companion, where he looks back at his past through something less than rose-tinted lenses, but still fond enough to recognize how it helped him arrive at his current state. And two songs play up just how fun and versatile Petty and his band were at this juncture. The version of “Climb That Hill,” prefaced Petty’s solo acoustic rendition “Climb That Hill Blues,” has an energy that is both infectious and ridiculous. It’s tight and raucous, with the Heartbreakers at their finest as they ride a groove with fury. Wildflowers had some wild moments in its initial state with “Honey Bee” and “Cabin Down Below,” but it’s no stretch to envision that it was particularly painful to pull this track from the final sequence.
Nearly as revelatory as the final 10 pieces of Wildflowers are the home demo recordings. They display that Petty had a very specific direction in mind, one that differed from the constructed brilliance of Full Moon Fever while still feeling unique and utterly listenable. The demos of “Wildflowers” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” were released ahead of the full set and revealed as much, with the former staying nearly intact on the final recording (though buttressed by Benmont Tench’s piano keys), while the latter saw some of its lyrics spin off into different songs. Even in the early stages, he was close, but he used his time in the studio to tremendous gain.
The demo of “California,” supported by Tench’s liner notes, show how much Petty regarded his adopted home and how closely he worked to develop the correct mood and delivery for the song. Interestingly, a line that states “I forgive my past” may reveal more than any other on how his sense of self evolved in the state. Other demos have their essential structure already set but reveal entirely different moods. “Crawling Back to You” is almost fully intact with just Petty and his guitar, but sounds more like a Neil Young march than the dreamy epic it would become. “Don’t Fade On Me” already has its atmospheric fingerpicking in place, but the lyrics are a meditation on band politics set against relationships, and melody of the title/chorus is nearly reversed.
And one of the gems of The Last DJ, “Have Love Will Travel,” appears here in its skeletal stages as “There’s a Break in the Rain,” which includes the “in between a memory and a dream” phrase that would become an indelible line on “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” This early draft also contains its own bits of captivating imagery in the line, “I could hear you knocking / but I could not let you in,” which never made it into the final song years later.
The side trips from the main record continue with the live album. Interestingly, the bulk of the live album doesn’t come from the 1995 “Dogs With Wings” tour that followed Wildflowers, but instead from the second half of the Heartbreakers’ live career. “Crawling Back to You” maintains all its majesty and gains a little wisdom and the weariness that comes with age in a take from that final tour in 2017, while “You Wreck Me” becomes a rave-up that whips a Boston crowd into a frenzy. Without its vast orchestration, “Wake Up Time” is driven by acoustic guitars. And there’s an almost menacing tone when this veteran band lurches into “Drivin’ Down to Georgia” or expands on the already vast pallatte of “It’s Good To Be King.” On the latter, Mike Campbell’s guitar wails and weaves within the spaces of Petty’s rhythm and Tench’s counter-punches from the keys.
But as anyone who ever saw the band knows, Petty was a funny guy and could crack a solid joke on stage. That humor comes over in droves on “Girl on LSD,” with our hero practically apologizing for this ridiculous song, running down the chemical preferences of girlfriends past and audibly chuckling in between each verse. There’s a lot of heavy material on this album and in his catalog, but a live show is supposed to be a fun night out, too, and no one enjoyed his time on stage more than Petty.
The last piece of this deluxe puzzle comes from Finding Wildflowers, a collection of alternate versions and more songs left by the side of the road. A set like this is certainly in diehards-only territory, but the strength of the material is supported by the reality that this piece is a solid listen in itself.
There are plenty of differences and tweaks to justify the inclusion of each track. “A Higher Place” carries even more of a jangling Byrds influence than the final product, Ringo Starr gets to count off the title track, and “Cabin Down Below” is a riot, with Petty simultaneously playing it cool while revving the band up — note the “Oh! Oh! Oh!” before the solo break. And “Girl on LSD” steals the show again. Here, it sounds like a different take than the one on the “You Don’t Know How it Feels” single. That could just be a matter of the mix bringing new elements into the song, but the sound here is much roomier — the piano rings through the space and Petty’s voice seems much more central, with the instruments stacking on top of each other as time moves on. And it includes Campbell yelling out “I like that song!” at the end.
It all comes to a close with another unheard song. “You Saw Me Comin’” is the bridge between the Jeff Lynne years and the Wildflowers era, a shimmering song that bears all the traits of the meticulously crafted recordings that graced Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open. But instead of feeling stacked and compressed, the song is given room to breathe, with the mostly live setting granting a unique ambiance to the production. Petty was stepping out of one phase and into another, even if he didn’t yet consciously realize as much.
Beyond paying tribute to a fallen artist, the main goal here, as it was when Petty was alive, is to get the lost songs from the originally conceived double album out and into the public, where they can sit alongside their more famous counterparts. There, certainly, is a mission accomplished. It’ll be difficult to separate them from the original Wildflowers songs, which fulfills the intent of the project.
But for hardcore fans, the deluxe versions so much more than just 10 new songs. And it’s presented in an easily digestible way — listening straight through for five hours is fun, but certainly not necessary. The beauty here is that each piece of this should become its own essential listening in time. The live album will sound great in the car. The home demos make for an excellent late night/early morning listen. The alternate versions themselves will reveal more nuances as time moves on. It’s all more material and more essential listening from a musician who isn’t here to provide any more on his own. He certainly left behind a formidable body of work to draw from, though.
And so it goes. Petty’s original vision of a complete Wildflowers is here, and now accompanied by a total overview of the artist at work, from the embryonic stages of the songs through their drafts, revisions and final recordings, topped off with their extended life on stage in venues around the country.
And as personal an album as this is, I can imagine a communal type of experience with it going forward. While not necessarily a party record that can be thrown on to keep a good time rolling, I see a situation where, in the not-too-distant future (when we can welcome friends into our home without fear of mass infection events), we're getting into a deep musical conversation. From there, this box comes off the shelf, the first LP is laid onto the platter, and Tom Petty’s acoustic guitar rings out into the room. And if everyone’s listening, it will be a revelation. With this set and the dedication given to it, that experience will become even more satisfying moving forward. That’s how the music lives on.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com