If one positive statement can be said of 2020, it would be that the music has not been bad; in fact, it’s been pretty darn great. So far, we’ve seen Neil Young (“Homegrown”), Ozzy Osbourne (“Ordinary Man”), AC/DC (“Shot in The Dark,” with a new album on the way), Bob Dylan (“Rough and Rowdy Ways”), Bon Jovi (“2020”) and others release new and/or previously unreleased music, most in the form of an album. On Oct. 16, the world was treated with another addition to the list. Tom Petty’s family and bandmates have shared his heartfelt “Wildflowers” album with unreleased songs and alternate takes of his most introspective work.
In 1994, Petty unleashed his second solo album and his first album ever with the Warner Brothers label. Producer Rick Rubin and most of The Heartbreakers shared in this experience as Petty dug into his soul like never before. Petty’s ideas seemed to flow from his thoughts seamlessly into a masterful and touching collection of music over the two-year recording period.
Following his smash hit, “Full Moon Fever,” and the solid “Into The Great Wide Open,” Petty set his sights on an introspective work, one that would reveal who Petty was to his ever-growing fanbase. Jeff Lynne’s style of such polished work worked more than well for those previous albums, but Petty wanted a new feel for his second solo effort. Linking up with Rick Rubin for “Wildflowers” and “Echo” was exactly the direction Petty was searching for.
Rubin’s approach to recording follows a more traditional sense. No longer would Petty be cutting the songs track by track; instead, Petty would sit down and cut the tracks fully with the whole band playing live, a technique he revived in 2010’s “Mojo.” This gave the album a warm and heartfelt essence which perfectly matched the work Petty was orchestrating.
Speaking of the songs, Tom had seemingly no limit to the creative explosion from 1992 to 1994 that make up this track list. From his tender title track, to the relaxed “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Petty was surely at his best. Yet, fans drooled for years to hear his unreleased extras that Warner had convinced him to keep on hold for the album. It was well worth the wait.
“Wildflowers” is one of those rare albums that you can say all of its songs are perfectly crafted, and it hits you like a brick wall. The entire album was Petty’s first work to feature his own emotions at the forefront, and it showed in every lyric and in the hidden meanings he weaved within them. Petty’s emotions were taking a hit at the time, as his relationship with his wife Jane was rapidly deteriorating — you can feel this tension in many of his songs.
Petty was shocked and a little scared about how fast these songs were forming in his mind. When he spoke about this to a psychiatrist, he was told that these songs seemed to be him speaking to himself. It’s not hard to see why this was the feeling; in many songs, such as “Wake Up Time,” we hear Tom talking to a young boy encouraging him that “you’ll be alright, it’s just gonna take time,” and in “To Find a Friend” we hear, “And the days went by, like paper in the wind / Everything changed, then changed again / It’s hard to find a friend.” Tom’s songs had long been on a path toward an intimate trust with his fans, but this entire work took it to a new level.
His tender title track softly sings of a love who “belongs among the wildflowers,” and leads into the anthemic “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” in which Petty discloses more intimate thoughts, telling his audience “You don’t know how it feels to be me.” This song would emerge as one of Petty’s most recognized works in his career.
Looking toward the future, Petty sings “Time To Move On,” in which he relays the familiar fear of the future in lyrics like “What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing,” but resolves to move ahead in spite of uncertainty. The following song is a classic highway tune, originally intended to be called “You Rock Me,” but instead named “You Wreck Me.” Petty’s bumpy tune features Mike Cambell on a euphoric solo that compares to that of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” in my book.
Benmont Tench’s piano meets listeners ears as “It’s Good To Be King” begins and Tom delves into yet another hidden meaning-laced track. Tom describes this image of how great it is to “be king,” but after every verse, he faces the reality that he is merely in a dream.
In the next track, Petty faces a fear which many have endured: a broken heart. In this piece, unlike many others of the same subject, Petty claims “I’m not afraid anymore. It’s only a broken heart.” This just offers another glimpse into Tom’s head going through this stressful separation with Jane.
“Honey Bee” hits hard and vastly contrasts the intimate “Don’t Fade on Me” that follows. The latter is a song which looks to the past with regret and longing as Petty hopes “the one who made things different … the one thing [he] could count on” won’t disappear.
“Hard on Me,” “Cabin Down Below,” “To Find a Friend,” “A Higher Place,” “House in The Woods,” “Crawling Back To You” and “Wake Up Time” finish up the original 15-track album, each further leading us into Tom’s thoughts in a troubled time, but each a masterful craft.
Of what was supposed to be the second disc in 1994, a few songs had been given in other ways out into the world, while others were waiting until 2020 to be unveiled. “Leave Virginia Alone” was given to Rod Stewart, who famously covered it as a single for his upcoming album in 1995. Four others were on the 1996 soundtrack of “She’s The One,” a film which Tom and his Heartbreakers scored the soundtrack of.
This reissue unveils another crucial aspect to the project, which Tom had designed for two years in the prime of his career. He had spoken about this new release and a subsequent tour of the album before his death in 2017, so this truly is the final project that had been in the hands of Tom Petty before he left us. According to his family and friends, this album has long had a place in his heart and he wanted to provide for his fans a fuller picture of his art.
If there is an album with such timeless reverberation to the soul, it is “Wildflowers.” Give it a listen, and when you do, play it through — try not to skip to favorites. One can learn a lot from an ailing heart being sewn into a masterpiece.
Joseph Gill is a second-year English writings major. JG923276@wcupa.edu