Photo: Mark Seliger / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

‘Wildflowers & All the Rest’ Is Tom Petty’s Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Wildflowers & All the Rest
Tom Petty
Warner Bros.
16 October 2020

Sometime between the home recording of “Crawling Back to You” on Wildflowers & All the Rest and the version that ended up on Wildflowers itself, Tom Petty figures it out. There’s a lyric deep in the song about the kind of bar fight we recognize from the American road myth with which he’s been long enamored, ending when an Indian “shot out the lights”. That’s no doubt a reference to one of the other great divorce albums, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. He starts to explain how they escaped “in a U-Haul van with a five-piece band”, but after the tape stops rolling, he realizes that extra verse has to go. Instead, we get one of the most harrowing subject changes in rock history. Nobody ever expects him to follow up that line about the lights with the album’s thesis, located right at its climax on track 14 out of 15: “I’m so tired of being tired / Sure as night follows day / Most things I worry about/Never happen anyway.”

Wildflowers, the 1994 solo album Petty released before a painful divorce and subsequent heroin addiction, was originally meant to be a double album. Wildflowers & All the Rest is supposed to give us the full Wildflowers experience, the White Albumlike behemoth Petty meant us to hear. Instead, it gives us a new appreciation for the original album’s curation. Aside from a few stragglers that ended up on his soundtrack to the rom-com She’s the One, it’s safe to say the best songs made it to the album, and the bonus tracks add up to an album as good as, say, Into the Great Wide Open.

What makes Wildflowers & All the Rest worth perusing is the home recordings. As the record takes shape in Petty’s home studio, we understand how Petty managed to make Wildflowers so uniquely devastating. This is not an album that follows breakup-album clichés and is often joyful and funny, permeated with that shaggy weed-country charm that follows Petty around like an eager Australian shepherd. How it wrecks us are more subtle, and listening to Wildflowers take shape helps us understand it a little better.

Take “To Find a Friend”, possibly Petty’s best song, in which he uses two harrowing verses to debate with himself whether or not he should dissolve his marriage. “In the middle of his life / Left his wife,” Petty sighs to himself, two years before he would make that decision. The man finds a sort of happiness. The woman does not. It’s a masterclass in empathy, one of the best songs ever written about deciding whether or not to prioritize your happiness over someone else’s, a visualization of the pushover’s dilemma. His language is heartbreakingly laconic. Boy, it was sad. Boy, what a broken heart. After each verse, a descending chromatic melody appears.

The home-recorded “To Find a Friend” loses a lot of its power in losing that melody, and listening to the final recording, we realize why. The song sounds like a family home. The descending chromatic figure is like a child practicing a scale, and maybe the triangle ticking in the back is the other kid rummaging through a box of toys. The piano solo could be the upright in the family living room, Dad entertaining the family with a few jazz licks. I always took for granted, there were kids in the song, but aside from Petty’s use of “everybody” to describe the broken home, none are mentioned; that chromatic motif implies their existence.

We also hear him realize that the “what happened” in “Wake Up Time”, the piano ballad that ends the album, must be spoken. And the line “alone in this world…” must be sung with every ounce of his energy. Then “…and it’s wake up time” must be delivered as dryly as possible. What is it about a slightly sarcastic monologue that’s so devastating? “Wake Up Time” is kin to Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song For Karen)” and so many songs by his fellow Traveling Wilbury Bob Dylan in exploiting this. What we hear on these demos is the sound of knives being sharpened. There’s a myth in rock ‘n’ roll that personal music is somehow other and more than music, that the act of creating art is dishonest, that the music of suffering can transcend the trap of artifice. All the Rest is a great argument to the contrary. To make Wildflowers as good as it is, Petty had to figure out precisely how to communicate what he was feeling, and that takes time and effort.

Petty’s writing is true to the rhythms of loneliness, the way the cracks in the civility of a casual conversation open onto unprompted and potentially embarrassing declarations of need. Its biggest song revolves around the chorus “you don’t know how it feels to be me,” and we intuitively understand that Petty’s offer to “roll another joint” isn’t about getting high but about hospitality, about staying in the glow of another person for a little while longer. “I woke up, stuck between memory and a dream,” he sings as the barest bones of a band threads between the booming drums. When the chorus hits—”let me get to the point”—we hear that numbness fall away, how overwhelming the presence of another human can be to the chronically isolated. Wildflower doesn’t advertise its truth, but it summons truths anyone can recognize through its subtle, laconic language. One of the most gutting lyrics on the album is “it’s good to get high and never come down” because we all know that’s not how that works.

Rick Rubin produced Wildflowers. This is a producer often touted as the antithesis of excess, the man LL Cool J called to “reduce” his album. You’d imagine his collaboration with a rocker as stripped-down and no-bullshit as Petty would yield a lean, mean monster, but Wildflowers is an anomaly in the Petty discography in that the arrangements flatter him. Though it’d be a stretch to call this music baroque, it’s his most Apollonian music. Aside from how beautifully “To Find a Friend” evokes the rhythms of a family home, we have the daydream coda of “It’s Good to Be King”, the synthesized swirl of “Time to Move On”, and one of the most successful rap-rock hybrids in “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”

The CD era Rubin’s production represents led to a few depressing developments that still dominate rock music, namely overlong songs, overlong albums, and dry production. Yes, the snare on “A Higher Place” would make 311 blush, and many of these songs crawl past the five-minute mark. But Petty meets this style in the middle. “House in the Woods” unfurls instead of dragging, “King” gets richer and darker as it takes its right turn into the woods, and at 15 songs in 63 minutes, it’s not a moment too long.

Like all albums that are messy by design, Wildflowers invites fans to pick their favorites and least favorites. I’ve never been a huge fan of “Honey Bee” and “Cabin Down Below”, the album’s cockiest rockers, but they have their mysteries. What does it mean for a girl to gift you a “monkey hand”, something that grants wishes with disastrous consequences? What’s with that prickly contrast between “cabin”, an image of refuge and comfort, and “down below”, like hell? “I’m going to rock ‘n’ roll a little now,” says Petty after a live “Crawling Back to You”, as if embarrassed by that song’s nakedness; are these rockers distractions, spoonfuls of sugar with the medicine?

Like The Beatles or Sign o’ the Times, both of which also received expanded reissues in the last few years that only served to highlight their perfection, Wildflowers is one of the least flawed “flawed” albums ever made. Even after years, you’re likely to forget what comes next and be pleasantly surprised. When the songs aren’t great, they’re interesting, and when they aren’t interesting, they’re great. Songs like “Only a Broken Heart” and “Hard on Me” might not sound like much at first, but their resin-fingered touch lasts long after the needle lifts.

There’s a danger in proclaiming Wildflowers Petty’s best album, just as there’s a danger in calling Meddle the best Pink Floyd album or III the best Led Zeppelin album. People who grew up with classic rock and are over-familiar or embarrassed with those artists’ best-known work can crawl to Wildflowers. If the bar-band traditionalist of Damn the Torpedoes inspires admiration but not interest, the Petty of Wildflowers, at home among strings and pianos, might be a little more welcoming.

But Wildflowers isn’t a masterpiece because it’s the Petty album that sounds the most like an indie rock album. It’s not a masterpiece because Petty’s marriage was on the rocks at the time, either. It’s a masterpiece because Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible, whether it be through metaphor, unvarnished honesty, or the combination of the two that is most true to the way the weary and needy actually talk. The CD of home recordings transitions immediately into the disc of live recordings, and when we hear the crowd roar after spending so much time in an echo chamber of loneliness, it hurts. “God bless you all,” he says at the end. He means it.

RATING 10 / 10