Wildflowers is an album that has continually increased in stature since its release in 1994. Technically it was Petty's second solo album, after 1989's smash Full Moon Fever, but most of the Heartbreakers showed up, all over the tracks, especially co-producer Mike Campbell. What distinguished it as a solo project was the type of songs Petty wrote, all for him rather than with an ear to the band's style. And what really set it apart were the emotionally-charged lyrics, Petty looking inside, trying to figure it all out. It's the bare heart of an adult, who still identifies with that kid he was, and all the other kids out there, older and younger. "I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants/you be the girl at the high school dance."
Shortly after Wildflowers came out, word spread about the original plans for the album. Producer Rick Rubin and Petty had made enough tracks for a double album, but that was whittled down to a single in the end. So there were a bunch of tracks complete and left over, Most of them stayed that way. "Leave Virginia Alone" was given to Rod Stewart, several others were re-done for the She's The One movie soundtrack, and another popped up in a film in 2015, but fans have long clamoured for the full sessions. They get that and more here. Over four CD's, there's the original album, the completed tracks that weren't released (called All The Rest here), a disc of home recordings that feature even more songs that didn't get recorded, and then a full live CD of Wildflowers tracks live.
I'm a pretty big fan of demos, alternate takes, out-takes and the like, but this is above and beyond that. As Benmont Tench shares in the notes, songs were pouring out of Petty at the time, and there's little to nothing to distinguish between the original album and all the others presented here. And as Mike Campbell also tells us, the songs seemed about other people, but they were all about Petty. Newly divorced and at a mid-life crossroads, Petty was trying to figure out love, life, himself. These questions came out in relatively simple vignettes, but ones that packed a great emotional punch. He offers each of his humble characters great empathy, of course being kind to himself in the process. They are confused, restless souls, so keen on getting it right, but so often the cause of their own failures.
Working with Rubin, and without the restrictions of the Heartbreakers name, Petty made the studio a playground. Nothing was out of bounds, from his beloved '60's garage sounds to his early Heartbreakers folk rock, to lush string accompaniment to nasty blues. Tench got to try out a bunch of different keyboards and synths, even a Mellotron. There's no one description, although many of the moody songs feature acoustic guitar cores. Yet "You Wreck Me" is one of the biggest rockers in his catalog. Several of the cuts became concert favourites right up until his last tour: "You Don't Know How It Feels," "It's Good To Be King," "Crawling Back To You," there's not a song to be dismissed over the 15 tracks on the original.
Now there's another 10 songs to add to that from the All The Rest disc, including the Byrds-like "Confusion Wheel," the original "Leave Virginia Alone," and "Harry Green," another of Petty's remarkable character studies about a troubled soul/hero. These ten tracks were actually chosen and planned as an album before he died, so we are definitely getting a definitive version, rather than some trolling through the vaults. Also, don't be fooled by the title of Home Recordings for the third disc. Petty was perfectly capable of making an album by himself at home if he wanted, The intimacy of these recordings, matched by the open-hearted warmth makes this another rewarding listen.
Then there's the live set, which as any fan knows, is gonna be great no matter what. What's so impressive is how well these tracks fit into the Heartbreakers' world, and how well they went over with fans. By the 2000's, much of his audience was there to hear the old hits, the sad but true world of the classic rock band. But these songs earned their way, and won over crowds every night. They own important spots in his hits collections and live albums now. There's a couple of rare gems added from Wallflowers era, including the humorous "Girl On LSD," but really, I can listen to any Petty live album any time, and this is as good as any of them.
Wildflowers affects me like no other Petty album. Most of them excite me, and his music never fails to have me singing along, it's perhaps my very favourite car-driving music. This one though makes me think and feel, turn introspective and even melancholy. But it also tells me I'm not alone, and lets me know that Petty cared about every last person who listened to the records he made. What a legacy.