“We gotta get to a higher place if we want to survive the weather…” – Tom Petty, ‘A Higher Place’
Wildflowers is the name of American rock ‘n roll artist Tom Petty’s second solo album, released in 1994, and marking a new direction in his iconic ‘Heartbreaker’ sound. He had toured with his backing group extensively since the late ‘70s, and his personal debut, Full Moon Fever, went on to be a global success.
Ask any Tom Petty fan what their ‘holy grail’ is, and they’ll probably respond with something along the lines of, ‘Wildflowers. All of it.’
At least they would have until a few weeks back. On October 16th 2020, Wildflowers & All the Rest was released in all its glory; adding ten new tracks to the already impressive running length of Tom Petty’s second solo venture. Fans have been waiting an awful long time for this new material; Petty himself insisted throughout his waning years that he wanted the full double LP to be released.
Wildflowers began its life that way; but record companies pressured Petty to trim a few tracks here and there; condense it into a shorter format – though, at 15 tracks, it’s hardly a short record. Still, at long last, Tom got his wish. Announced this year. Released just over a month ago. Wildflowers. And All the Rest. As with many of Petty’s posthumous releases (such as 2018’s An American Treasure), Wildflowers… is the accumulated effort of his immediate family and former bandmates; unearthing and remastering old master tapes and sound reels.
I paused a while before buying it, however. Wildflowers is a great album, and one I can easily agree being perhaps Petty’s best, artistically. But I guess I always preferred the amplified highs of Damn the Torpedoes, or classic ‘80s rock of Long After Dark. But then I saw the media posts, and I listened to the final album again… and I realised I was missing something by not having it in my collection. So, I bought it – I spent far too much for a student budget, but within a few days, the 3LP set was mine. And I almost cried when I opened it. The packaging is nice, beautiful, really, but it was the soundthat blew me away. The result is nothing short of a spectacle.
But is Wildflowers untouchable as is? Or were we all better off finding All the Rest?
All the Rest – the second disc for CD releases and third record for subsequent deluxe vinyl sets – opens with ‘Something Could Happen’; a poignant reminder of just how personal Wildflowers was to Petty. It’s not his rockiest album; hardly his most electric. Flipping the tone of his previous solo effort – Full Moon Fever – on its head, Wildflowers is a hearty offering of downbeat, acoustic ballads; with just a few rockers scattered throughout. It marked the point of musical mastery with Petty; and a point where his music became notably sadder as a result. Take 1999’s Echo. It’s a far cry from the screaming ‘Refugee’ of 1979, or even ‘91’s Into the Great Wide Open.
But I digress. ‘Something Could Happen’ is a truly haunting song; from its trudging backbeat to pained, defeated lyrics. Still, it makes for one hell of an interesting song; and a track I think should have made the shortlist for the final product. It’s a great opener for our All the Rest. And the trend only continues with the lead single off the expanded reissue, Petty’s own version of ‘Leave Virginia Alone’; a song best remembered from Rod Stewart’s 1995 record, A Spanner In the Works. Only, it must be said, Petty’s version is better (sorry, Rod). It’s certainly one of the most ‘optimistic’, upbeat selections on the extra disc, though not in its passages; of a girl hounded in all weeks of life. Petty’s cries for compassion are deliciously real – echoing what was to come in 2010’s The Last DJ. The wavering guitar only adds an ethereal quality to an already impressive outtake; with a chorus any fan of Petty would love.
Another interesting facet of Wildflowers is that much of its cut material ended up on Tom Petty’s movie venture; the soundtrack to She’s The One (released two years later)– including a couple of tracks on All the Rest. ‘Climb That Hill’ seems to have originated as ‘Climb That Hill Blues’, a pretty much exact replicant in words, but not in sound. In that regard, it’s like the Heartbreaker’s eponymous debut, but flipped on its head. A more finalised version of the track – closer to its appearance on She’s The One – is also on All the Rest, so this cut was necessary. But all the same, it gives fans an important insight into the creative mind of a real genius; and that’s what Petty was at this point. It took the Gainesville lad nearly two decades to hone and hone and hone. But here he really struck something deep.
‘Confusion Wheel’ was one of the first tastes of an impending Wildflowers reissue, and it sounds straight off the final LP. Lyrically, it tells of a great divide in Petty – possibly a foreshadowing of his divorce two years later – and how he has been so confused. It’s a neat track, but in my opinion just a little too close to the final fifteen tracks to prove all that memorable to me. ‘California’ meanwhile, is exactly the opposite. Another track that would end up on Songs and Music from “She’s The One”, it’s an up-tempo tribute to the sunshine state. Again, to see it before its final form is nothing short of incredible; and it sounds just as fresh, all these years later. I can see why it was cut, though; it’s a fairly short ditty that doesn’t fit thematically with the rest of Wildflowers. To the album’s detriment, but to its ultimate parent’s luck.
Side two of All The Rest is a very soft opener in ‘Harry Green’, telling the tale of an old school friend of Petty’s. It sounds straight out of Southern Accents to me, with a real deep south vibe; not least of all helped by the finest sliver of harmonica woven throughout. It’s certainly ethereal, but not the most memorable number. ‘Hope You Never’ is an amalgamation of every song on Wildflowers, really, with enough Mojo blues and driving backbeat please both sides of Petty’s career. This one certainly deserved an inclusion.
‘Somewhere Under Heaven’ has the the grand, airy chorus of Into the Great Wide Open, promising a better life; with shifting landscapes and a real echo of hope. The polished version of ‘Climb That Hill’, turns that optimism into downright determination, however, with knife-sharp guitar and standout vocals from Tom. ‘Hung Up and Overdue’ brings us to the end of the She’s The One inclusion, and All the Rest in general. It’s easy to tell when it was produced but, as with ‘Confusion Wheel’, just more of the same. Not to say that’s a bad thing, but at fifteen tracks, you really need to cut any repetition you can.
In the end, I can’t say with any real authority whether Petty made the right decision or not. There’s a lot of refined material here; and a lot that treads the same line as the finished piece. But it doesn’t really matter. The fact that the fans can own these tracks; slide them into their CD player or set the needle in their grooves, to enjoy, to take in, to obsess over, is nothing short of phenomenal. And I highly recommend Wildflowers & All the Rest to anyone who’s curious. Tom Petty has done faster tracks, slower tracks, mounting ballads and raucous rockers. But he’s never done something so meaningful, before or since. It’s a glimpse into the mind of a complex man. But a true master of his craft. A forger of poems. And a damn fine musician. We miss Tom, but though we can’t meet the man himself, we can continue to walk the path of a legendary legacy.