Though it adds no historical or artistic heft to its deserved rep as one of Tom Petty’s finest (if not definitive) statements, Wildflowers was an inflection point for me. After such unassailable recordings as his punk and pissy ’76 debut, 79’s epic Damn the Torpedos and such eloquent successors as Hard Promises and Full Moon Fever, and after so many great songs from a host of arguably uneven albums in-between, “You’re Jammin’ Me,” “Rebels,” “Learning to Fly,” “Runaway Trains,” ‘The Damage You’ve Done,” “Louisiana Rain,” it was in the wake of Wildflowers, that I totally lost interest with Petty. That was until his regrettable passing in October of 2017.
For as great a songwriter as he was and rock history bears out, he was an incredibly lazy one. A rightfully unapologetic pothead, Petty had two speeds: If an indica strain ruled the day you got the apoplectically boring “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” On a sparkling sativa day, take your pick of any of the above-mentioned songs or others like them.
Essential to the original Wildflowers’s lore is Petty’s personal strife. He was going through a divorce and embarking on a five-year heroin affair. His vision was to have a double album of 25 songs, but he then uncharacteristically agreed with Warner Brothers to pare down to a single disc. It was supposedly to be produced as a solo album but no one, not the rap grounded Rick Rubin who took over from Jeff Lynne’s sure pop as producer or Petty himself could shake that clean, chiming, reverberant Heartbreakers sound. In the long run, we’re all the better for it.
So, as we savor the quiet, casual, and lasting brilliance of the original Wildflowers and now, the shambling, immersive4CD set experience, Wildflowers and All the Rest (The deluxe edition holds a fifth disc of alternate takes.), let’s get the gripe out of the way and move on. As carefully curated and sequenced as the first three discs are: the 2014 remastered original; a second disc of ten sister songs titled All The Rest; and the third disc, a wonderful trove of solo demos on Home Recordings; Disc 4, Wildflowers Live, is a messy hodgepodge of live recordings seemingly tossed together from performances circa 1995-2017. Sure it’s cool to hear deep tracks and fan faves as “Walls,” “Girl On LSD,” and “Driving Down to Georgia” and all out rave ups: “It’s Good to Be King” and “You Wreck Me,” but the disc lacks the needed emotional continuity that a real nightly setlist would have.
I started with Disc 3, Home Recordings. It is, after all, where the man himself started and it is stunning to hear him quickly find and mine a deep creative vein. Comforted by the Heartbreakers sound that the intimacy of these recordings have, listeners may wonder what an all solo Petty tour might have offered. The opening, the only known recording of “There Goes Angela (Dream Away)” will catch your breath as a fully formed lullaby, much like the song “Wildflowers” itself. Then comes the bright shiny pop of “California,” the buoyant love song “A Feeling of Peace,” and the arena ready “Leave Virginia Alone.” The ominous shades of “Confusion Wheel” and “Don’t Fade On Me” are then brilliantly offset with the sparkle of “A Higher Place.” The added bonus to these fifteen tracks is that we get to imagine what these songs may/will sound like once in the hands of the Heartbreakers.
With Disc 2, All The Rest, and upon the first elegiac chords of “Leave Virginia Alone” following the subdued balladry of “Something Could Happen” one only wonders why Petty didn’t stick to his original visions. It wasn’t as if he never skirmished with record execs before or held off releasing a “Wildflowers 2” until it was too late for him to do so. The finger picking memory dream “Harry Green” is a sure stand out as is the A side pure power of “Somewhere Under Heaven.”
Suffice to say that whatever our individual reasons, be they musical, emotional, psychological, or human, this 2014 remastering of Wildflowers shimmers having a life and legend of its own.
Now with this expansive set (Let’s just forgive the live set, okay?), Wildflowers enjoys two lives.