Review Summary: On hiatus from the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty delivers the most poignant work of his career.
It’s difficult to grasp the idea Tom Petty is far more than a quintessential dinosaur rock hit practitioner. The bulk of Petty’s success has been derived from writing scores of straight ahead catchy rock staples, always high on meaty hooks but usually eschewing any lasting sense of depth. Petty’s career as frontman of the Heartbreakers is stalwart enough for Hall of Fame status, but the bulk of his legacy owes more to the joys of mindless fist raising rock than any sense of underlying sentimentality. With these pre-conceived notions in mind, it is utterly astounding to conceive the resonating poignancy of his greatest work, 1994’s “Wildflowers.”
“Wildflowers” eschews the traditional party rock formula for something much more preeminent. Sure, there are a few requisite irresistible rockers, naturally encompassing the freedom-embracing images of driving at excessive speeds to destination who cares (You Wreck Me, Higher Place), but “Wildflowers” is more ambitious in its quest for self reflection than satisfying the thirst for immediately accessible hooks. “Wildflowers,” above all else, is a self lamenting ride through the struggles of love and life, baring its soul the entire way in a haunting yet memorable attempt to cure self-doubt with optimism. Perhaps self reflection is really the overriding theme of “Wildflowers,” as the ambience of the album is awash in nostalgic rawness, each entry transcending a specific, over-riding mood upon the listener.
Petty paints these moods in layers of sometimes wistful, sometimes self deprecating storylines, but the accompanying musical themes are usually optimistic, transforming the atmosphere of a song like “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” which is really about crushing loneliness, into a party anthem. When the brightest guitar chords imaginable emanate from the Title Track, the immediate feeling conjured is defined innocence, a natural soothing warmth prescribed by jangly acoustics. Relaxation is an over-riding emotion flowing from “Wildflowers,” as even when Petty laments loss on “Its Only a Broken Heart,” “Hard on Me,” “Crawling Back to You,” and “To Find a Friend,” it feels more like reflecting on a breezy porch, drink in hand, than succumbing to the depths of despair. The lyrical content of the redemption seeking “Time to Move On” and “Wake Up Time” are devastating to those that waste their lives, but the yearning, gorgeous melodies dripping from each prescribe that recurring sense of optimism, that even if one has waffled the majority of their existence there still stands a remaining shard of hope.
It seems perhaps through a newfound maturity or optimistic focus that Petty is sugaring his self doubt on purpose, as even when the album takes its darkest turn on the chilling, backwoods Bayou influenced “Don’t Fade On Me,” it is intentionally sandwiched between the joyously dirty rocker “Honey Bee” and the rolling, “this should be in a Quentin Tarantino movie” grooves of “Cabin Down Below.” Much like the conflicting lyrical/atmospheric themes of memorable single “You Don’t Know How It Feels,”“It’s Good to Be King” is a vivacious attack on his own natural selfishness, but the piano dustings and gargantuan chorus belie the understated moodiness of the song’s lyrical motives, transforming a self loathing song into an upbeat atmosphere. This collision of insightful, honest lyricism with above average musicianship drives not only the memorable singles, but is consistent throughout the record.
Always the prolific songwriter, Petty reached the pinnacle of his abilities on “Wildflowers,” digging deep to embrace the struggles of adult life while maintaining an air of youthful wistfulness. While each track maintains a pre-defined, requisite catchiness, repeated listens to the album transcribe the sense there is something much more profound here. “Wildflowers” combines the rocking elements of Petty’s past with a heightened focus on acoustics and melody, and the collision of memorable musical tones with hauntingly reflective storylines establish a lasting resonance. Often, a requisite for a great song is the ability to dictate a certain mood or to conjure specific, life relating memories. “Wildflowers” showcases Petty following this textbook to a tee, and is the primary reason it is his greatest overall performance.
Time to Move On
You Don’t Know How It Feels
A Higher Place
Crawling Back to You
It’s Good to Be King
You Wreck Me
Wake Up Time
Cabin Down Below
Don’t Fade on Me