‘Tom Petty Wildflowers & All The Rest: Deluxe Edition’ Proves Well Worth The 25 Year Plus Wait (ALBUM REVIEW)

The initial posthumous Tom Petty vault release, An American Treasure, suggested ever so strongly that the late rocker was reaching a new level of sophistication in his songwriting at the time of his tragic and unexpected passing. But it’s fair to say that 1994’s Wildflowers was a major step in that very same direction and that’s a fair evaluation even without hearing this archive set or gauging how its surplus of content is fully indicative of the combination of inspiration and craft behind the Rick Rubin-produced project. 

TP’s second solo album did not sell in the mega-quantities of his first, Full Moon Fever, but it was a fair commercial success and over the quarter century-plus since its release, the title has achieved somewhat of a hallowed status because the artist himself had spoken of it in such reverential terms. Later in life too, Petty often talked of playing the album live in its entirety with the Heartbreakers as well as releasing an expanded edition based on material left in his archives. Because of his sudden demise, however, the former event never took place (in a single run of shows as he projected anyway), but his surviving family has seen to it the latter became a reality.

If the compact disc had not been the dominant audio configuration at the time of Wildflowers‘ release over a quarter-century ago, its sixty minutes-plus would’ve comprised a double LP set of vinyl. That is, at least if Tom Petty and Rick Rubin wanted to preserve audio quality as superior as this remastered sound (at least in comparison to certain of the available CDs of the title): the up-close mix on this Deluxe Edition allows for multiple additional nuances in both Petty’s vocals and the accompanying instruments to emanate from speakers or headphones. Even in an arrangement as sparse as that of the title song, the presence of the sonics is an estimable virtue in and of itself, while on lesser material here like  “You Don’t Know What It’s Like,” that attribute at least somewhat camouflages the shortfalls of the songs.

Extensive archive collections such as Wildflowers & All The Rest usually compel thoughts of alternate track-listings and often multiple such reconfigurations, especially in a case like this: with an approximately forty-minute disc of outtakes, the prospects are bountiful indeed. Add to that the reality the album as it was originally released was, at the insistence of Warner Records, whittled down to its fifteen final tracks leaving in the vault the ten numbers on this second disc of four. Yet cuts such as “Confusion Wheel” and “Hung Up and Overdue” take on even greater significance, based on the deeply introspective themes that pervade the majority of the material. 

This component of the larger compendium does clarify, however, that arrangements can occasionally overshadow the compositions:  “Somewhere Under Heaven,” for instance, ends up a bit too imitative of Who’s Next due directly to its density of sound. Meanwhile, tellingly, the bittersweet likes of “Something Could Happen” does not fall prey to that self-indulgence precisely because, like much of Petty’s The Last DJ, it sounds more like judicious stylistic and production homage to his great friend, the late George Harrison. “Leave Virginia Alone” evinces the same lush mix of instruments, moving at a leisurely but assertive pace, conjuring up a world unto itself in song.

To an even greater degree, these fifteen demos and home recordings reaffirm Petty and Rubin’s notion of a more expansive release. More more subdued material on the order of “Only A Broken Heart” and heretofore unreleased numbers like “There’s A Break In The Rain (Have Love Will Travel)” are of a piece with “Crawling Back to You;” while that seamless quality is otherwise transparent, based the tone of TP’s singing, the continuity becomes further clarified through the juxtaposition of the latter two cuts. Such a small but significant touch is a testament to the insight Petty’s longtime engineer and co-producer Ryan Ulyate offered to the curators of this set, Tom’s daughters Adria and Annakim and his wife Dana, along with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench.

The fact Tom Petty’s redoubtable band–guitarist Campbell, keyboardist Tench, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, bassist Howie Epstein and drummer Steve Ferrone–all appear extensively on the Wildflowers sessions suggests the concert takes might not sound altogether different from their studio counterparts. But it is a fact that, even without extensive improvisation, the playing on these fourteen performances, recorded on various tours from 1995 to 2017, brings new life and shed new light on the otherwise familiar material. In addition, “Girl On LSD” appears here in place of “Only A Broken Heart,” thus becoming readily available apart from its status otherwise as a great rarity in studio form (intended as a single B-side, it was deemed too controversial by the record label).  

Besides varying setlists with the rootsy likes of “To Find A Friend,” the collective surety arising from the bandleader’s bond with the quintet imparts a delicate touch to numbers such as “Climb That Hill” and “Hope You Never:” the fragility of the emotions therein compel proportionately delicate musicianship. Plus, hearing the leader’s voice as he sings “Time to Move On,” there’s an extra healthy distance from the subject that, rather than undermine the personal nature of the material, instead enhances the obvious sense of pride and pleasure the author takes in playing these particular songs.

Hearing Wildflowers & All The Rest Deluxe Edition may inevitably elicit in listeners the sad thought the package represents a grand ambition left unfulfilled prior to the unexpected death of Petty. Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not the perception’s based on one of the lavish formats containing multiple essays, complete lyrics, custom graphics images and an array of photos, its very existence provides valuable insight into the creative process. In the end, that’s the most enduring of all possible additions to Petty’s legacy.

 

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