Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers and All the Rest': Album Review
When Tom Petty's Wildflowers came out in 1994, it was designed as a stripped-down solo breather after two hyper-produced albums made with Jeff Lynne. In the quarter century since its release, this project turned out to be one of Petty's most defining works.
Wildflowers couldn't have been further from rock's central heartbeat in the mid '90s. Grunge and alt-rock had all but halted the genre's old vanguard, forcing many artists to rethink their approach while wiping out some subgenres altogether. A stripped-down singer-songwriter album was so 1988.
But here were Petty, new producer Rick Rubin and 15 songs built on acoustic foundations that had more to do with rustic Americana than bleeding-guitars rock 'n' roll. On top of all that, the album included Petty's most personal songs – a new move by an artist who usually kept his private life distant from his work.
Coming after Lynne's kitchen-sink approach on 1989's solo record Full Moon Fever and the 1991 Heartbreakers LP Into the Great Wide Open, Wildflowers wasn't so much a radical move as it was a necessary one. In the years since its release, the album has taken on mythical status. Petty and Rubin (along with various Heartbreakers) recorded enough material for a double LP, an idea Petty's new record company nixed. And not long before his death in 2017, Petty talked about revisiting the project, complete with a tour focusing on the album.
A new four-CD set, Wildflowers & All the Rest, collects the sessions' outtakes, home recordings, demos and live cuts to bring Petty's intimate vision even closer to his original intent. This reissue won't change the way you hear Wildflowers – still one of Petty's best albums and one whose reputation continues to sprout over the years – but it does offer a deeper look into what could have been.
Some of the songs left off the album are probably familiar to fans. "Leave Virginia Alone" was a minor hit for Rod Stewart in 1995, and a handful of tracks – including "California" and "Hung Up and Overdue" – ended up on Petty and the Heartbreakers' 1996 soundtrack album She's the One, though occasionally in re-recorded and remixed form.
The best songs slated for but eventually cut from the double Wildflowers, like "Confusion Wheel" and "Somewhere Under Heaven," slip between the laid-back comforts and porch-swing rock of album highlights "Wildflowers" and "You Wreck Me." The home recording of the unreleased "There Goes Angela (Dream Away)" does, too.
And demos of album tracks "You Don't Know How It Feels" and the title song reveal new and even more intimate takes on familiar songs. (A five-disc version of Wildflowers & All the Rest adds alternate versions of LP cuts, plus assorted B-sides and other leftovers.)
It all adds up to a more complete Wildflowers, though an occasionally bloated one. The home recordings and live tracks (which go all the way up to 2017) reveal before and after looks at the material, charting their evolution even following the songs' release. But the original sequencing remains the definitive word. The 10 additional tracks proposed for the double LP are the main reason this reissue project matters, but it's not necessarily a better album at that longer length.
As Wildflowers continues to grow in stature in the years since its release, and even since Petty's death, this expanded set will find its place in the history. The missing pieces tell a bigger story, which, in turn, provides a more complete portrait of an artist coming to a musical crossroads at the end of a century and forging forward by following his heart. It was out of step with the era then, but now that timelessness is its greatest appeal.