Release: November 1, 1994
Tom Petty’s storied career spans four decades, from 1976 to 2014. In that time, he’s put out 13 albums with the Heartbreakers, a backing band so firmly entrenched in its front man’s persona that it’s hard to think of one without the other, 3 solo albums, and even teamed up with luminaries like Dylan, Harrison, Orbison, and Lynne to form the Traveling Wilburys. A Petty concert is a master class in classic rock, as he leads the Heartbreakers through hit after hit after hit.
It says something about Petty’s output that I can bypass his truly iconic works to focus on a lesser-known gem. Obviously you can’t talk about Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers without talking about their 1976 self-titled debut, 1979’s masterful Damn the Torpedoes, Petty’s 1989 solo debut Full Moon Fever, or any number of classic singles in between. The guy’s got so many truly perfect songs. I’ll list one from each of his albums.
- “American Girl” –Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (1976)
- “Listen To Her Heart” – You’re Gonna Get It! (1978)
- “Refugee” – Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
- “The Waiting” – Hard Promises (1981)
- “You Got Lucky” – Long After Dark (1982)
- “Don’t Come Around Here No More” – Southern Accents (1985)
- “Jammin’ Me” – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)
- “Free Fallin’ – Full Moon Fever (1989, solo)
- “Learning to Fly” – Into the Great Wide Open (1991)
- “You Don’t Know How It Feels” – Wildflowers (1994)
Those 10 songs don’t account for all the other classic songs TP & the HB’s put out over that nearly 20-year period, and it also excludes Petty’s solid late career output. There’s no shortage of material to sort through when looking over Petty’s career.
So what drew me to 1994’s Wildflowers? If I were to pick a solo Petty album, why not Full Moon Fever, unarguably his commercial peak? It’s got three massive singles, and another song that every Petty fan knows by heart. Jeff Lynne produced it. It sounds great. It’s a masterclass in songcraft. But for some reason, the solo album that sits nearest to my heart is the oft-forgotten Wildflowers.
I can’t remember exactly when I discovered this album. It was sometime in my early high school years, or maybe earlier. I remember learning “Honey Bee” and “Cabin Down Below” on my electric guitar when I was still finding my voice on that instrument. I remember hearing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” on classic rock radio and wondering why they were censoring the word “joint” (I knew very little about FCC censorship laws in those days). I remember hearing “You Wreck Me” and feeling the rush of what three chords could do. I remember hearing “Wake Up Time” and being so taken by the lilting melody and piano. But most of all, I think I remember that album summing up a lot of what I thought a good album should be: easy, confident, with plenty of wide open spaces for the songs to breathe.
That sense of ease and space is apparent from the very first chords of the album opening title track. It’s a simple song; it’s just bright acoustic guitar chords and Petty’s nasal drawl opining “You belong among the wildflowers” and things of that nature before the rest of the band steps into a light shuffle, adding sympathetic embellishments throughout. Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, in particular, shines throughout this album, never misplacing a note.
The album only gets better from there, with “Wildflowers” transitioning into the similarly sparse anthem “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. It’s one of Petty’s signature latter-day hits, and certainly one of his most breezily confident. From the opening strains of harmonica to the simple backbeat, punctuated with electric piano and guitar flourishes. “Let’s roll another joint” is one of Petty’s most enduring lyrics, despite not being the subject of the song. Rather, it’s about just getting some peace, cutting through the bullshit. Smoking is just one of the many mechanisms Petty uses to communicate this point, like getting to the point or turning the radio up loud.
“Time To Move On” glides along on a bittersweet shuffle before giving way to the supercharged three-chord rock and roll of “You Wreck Me”, another late-career staple. Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, one of rock’s most sympathetic and underrated players, rips into a short, sweet guitar solo that perfectly sums up the album: concise, confident, nothing out of place.
“It’s Good To Be King” and “Only a Broken Heart” slip into a midtempo groove, both dealing with loneliness and solitude. These songs contrast perfectly with “Honey Bee”, a raw, swaggering piece of bluesy machismo with a riff to match. Later on in the album, “Cabin Down Below” shares the same aesthetic.
Coming on the heels of such an amped-up song, “Don’t Fade On Me” sounds positively foreign by comparison. It’s just Petty and Campbell on acoustic guitar and Petty’s voice. Petty’s lyrics are as straightforward as the music is stripped down: “I return to find you drifting too far from the shore”. It’s clearly about watching someone drifting away, and being completely helpless to it. It’s a sublime moment in an album full of them.
“To Find A Friend” is one of my favorites on the album, a light shuffle about a divorce and a reinvention of the man in question. It’s obviously not a topic I’d know anything about: I’m only 21 and unmarried, and my parents are very happily married. And yet there’s something so universal about the simple refrain of “it’s hard to find a friend” that you can’t help but feel something from it. Because he’s right, it can be hard to find a friend. That’s something that rings more true the older you get; we’ve all felt it. Sonically, the song is a delight too. Benmont Tench’s tack piano solo sounds like something you’d hear in an old-timey saloon, and we get the added bonus of Ringo Starr drumming on the track. It is absolutely a highlight, and has a great deal of meaning to me on a personal level.
The back half of the album lags a bit compared to the first half. The album’s final track more than makes up for any perceived drop-off. “Wake Up Time,” for me, is one of the finest tracks Petty has ever written. Its premise is simple enough: keeping your head up and eyes open, and maybe things will pan out for you. Musically, the song is simple enough: it’s just Petty’s voice and a piano until the band comes in. The song is a tad overproduced, with a sweeping string section adding a degree of cheesiness to the whole thing. But at the end of the song, everything drops out except for Petty and the piano and we here this: “Well if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl to help him to shoulder the pain in this world”. Again, what makes this lyric so profound is just how truly universal it is. Everyone feels this at some point or another, that sense that someday your loneliness will be abated as long as you shake things off. “It’s wake up time,” Petty says in his drawl. “Time to open up your eyes. And rise. And shine.” You can’t help but feel a connection to that.
So this album is a masterclass in everyman-isms, a trade that Petty’s been employed in his entire career. He pulls it off with his usual aplomb, and with a degree of ease and confidence that exudes from this album. I listened to this album constantly for a very long time, and taking the opportunity to revisit it has been a true joy. Petty’s had a storied career, and it’s unfortunate that this album gets lost in the midst of his iconic discography. But it deserves every ounce of praise it gets, and is absolutely worth your time, regardless of if you’re a Tom Petty fan or not.