REVIEW: Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers & All the Rest” is Worth the Investment

Reviews

Fancy box sets, with their unreleased tracks, alternate takes and live versions of songs we already know, are a dicey proposition for all but the most hardcore fans. It’s a whole lot of money for what could conceivably be inferior material. In the case of this week’s expanded re-release of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, however, the small investment is more than worth it. Dubbed Wildflowers & All the Rest, the set is a mix of amazing new (to you) Petty songs, hauntingly beautiful demos, and a mix of live cuts from the album culled from a wide range of Heartbreakers shows. Honestly, it’s the most fun I’ve had listening to music all year.

The Wildflowers set comes in seven different versions (4 vinyl, 3 compact disc). The fine folks at Warner Music Group sent us the Deluxe Edition (7 LPs or 4 CDs). All versions include the original album plus 10 songs left off the original release, which Petty had conceived as a double album (a rather hefty one, at 25 tracks), Our version also included 15 solo demos and 14 live cuts, plus extensive liner notes and photos. All of the originals tracks – the hits “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “You Wreck Me,” the bar-closer “Time to Move On” and the subtly raunchy “Honey Bee” are as good as you remember, so let’s spend our time on the music you haven’t yet heard, but need to (some of the tracks on All the Rest exist, in alternate takes, on the She’s the One soundtrack).

“Something Could Happen” leads off All the Rest, and it’s an unsparing look at Petty’s pre-divorce state of mind (he and his first wife divorced in 1994, two years after Wildflowers was released). It’s confessional  – “I’m not easy to know/My mind can change/My moods come and go” – and it balances Mike Campbell’s guitar with Benmont Tench’s moody piano work. It’s Petty at his loneliest. “Leave Virginia Alone” is a tune that, after discarding it from Wildflowers, Petty gave to Rod Stewart (truthfully, I’d forgotten it – like most of Stewart’s 90s efforts, until prepping for this album), but Campbell’s guitar outro alone would’ve been worth Petty holding onto it. “Climb That Hill” gets two passes – an acoustic “Blues” cut and an electric version which is just a great rock ‘n’ roll song. “Confusion Wheel,” in addition to being an apt title for everything that’s occurred in 2020, is a terrific slow-build of a tune which shows us Petty’s vulnerability at the time – “So much confusion has made me afraid/And I don’t know how to love.” But “Hope You Never” takes a more spiteful tone – “I hope you never fall in love/With somebody like you.” “Harry Green” is a rather remarkable song for the mid 90s – a tale of friendship between two young men. A simple folk song with only Petty’s vocals, guitar and harmonica, Harry is a boy that maybe would have fared better today – “Harry Green had to hold so much/Deep inside himself.” Even with the narrator’s steadfast friendship – “Harry Green was alright by me” – the young man doesn’t meet a happy ending. Without getting too deep into the weeds, this was a gutsy topic for a Southern songwriter in 1994, even one with Petty’s cache. All told, this second album, while perhaps not as radio friendly as the original Wildflowers, is an amazing set of songs that we missed out on over the past 26 years.

The demos included in the deluxe set are all tracks that Petty recorded and produced, alone, in his home studio. For all of their apparent simplicity, the songs are stunningly fleshed out. “There Goes Angela (Dream Away)” shows Petty’s generous spirit – “If ever someone should break your will/Have a dream on me” – but the recording best serves as a reminder of, with all of the Southern hippy slurriness stripped away, how pretty Petty’s voice could actually be. The demos also emphasize Petty’s guitar work, another skill of his that’s not always appreciated. His solo on “Confusion Wheel” is cool and atmospheric, whereas his playing on “You Don’t Know How It Feels” is just plain fun. And a line from that demo – “Most things that I worry about/Never happen anyway” – will eventually find its way into “Crawling Back to You.” “Wake Up Time,” with just piano, Petty’s voice and a hitch or two, feels most like the singer working out a song in real time. And “Wildflowers,” written on the fly as it was recorded in close to its ultimate form, is a suitable way to bookend the studio material in the box set.

The live cuts, ranging from 1995 to 2017 (the year that Petty died), don’t pack many surprises, but they still offer a look at one of the best road bands to ever take the stage. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” indulges the audience in a “roll another one” sing-along and also includes an extended piano break from Tench. “To Find a Friend,” the first live performance of the song, features Campbell on mandolin. “Drivin’ Down to Georgia” and “Girl on LSD” are Petty rarities that never found their way into proper albums. “It’s Good to Be King” is 11 minutes of three-guitar jammy deliciousness (bringing in Scott Thurston to duel with Campbell and Petty). And “Crawling Back to You” which Petty tells the crowd, “It’s always been one of my favorites,” comes from 2017, the Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary (and, as it sadly turns out, last) Tour.

So, Petty devotees, is Wildflowers & All The Rest worth your hard-earned pandemic cash? As a moderate fan myself, I was absolutely entranced by the entire project, from the fresh cuts to the intro from producer Rick Rubin, the essay by David Fricke, and the song-by-song conversation from various parties involved in the Wildflowers project, as well as daughter Adria. All told, it’s a fantastic look into the record-making process from a man who firmly believed in full albums.

To pick the version of Wildflowers & All the Rest that’s right for you, go here: https://store.tompetty.com/?intcmp=200820/tompetty/wr/spl/s_hp/but/bdy/ww/wildflowers-splash-shop

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