Album Review: Tom Petty - Wildflowers (1994)

By Sergio Ariza

The great maturity album of his career

"In the middle of his life, He left his wife and ran off to be bad, boy, it was sad to see"


Tom Petty was 44 when Wildflowers came out and at the comercial peak of his career, with Generation X seeing him as one of the few legit classic rockers. But his life wasn't exactly a bed of roses, his marriage of 20 years was falling apart and the drummer of his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, hadn't taken kindly to Petty's decision to leave him off the recording of this album. To make matters worse, the pain of it all, mainly his separation, pushed him to heroin. All those feelings can be seen reflected in an album that can contend with Damn The Torpedoes as the definitive album of his career.

The origins of Wildflowers can be seen years earlier when Petty hooked up with a number of his legendary friends,
George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and his friend Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys. Behind the back of his then company, MCA, Petty negotiated a lucrative solo contract with Warner Bros, the company that had signed the Wilburys. In 1992 he began recording a solo album and called in Rick Rubin as producer. This was significant because from that moment on it was clear that he was looking for a different effect. If for the epic, Free Fallin' style, he trusted Lynne, for his more confessional and spartan side he trusted Rubin.


Petty was clear that this was going to be his second solo album after Full Moon Fever but also that there were no better musicians to accompany him than his beloved Heartbreakers, mainly his captain,
Mike Campbell. Petty signalled the end of Stan Lynch's days in the band as he was the only member he didn't use again, as he was replaced by Steve Ferrone, although he also had the luxury of having Ringo Starr on a couple of songs.

The album is a glorious example of those great maturity albums like Time Out Of Mind or Tunnel Of Love, and it is also a breakup album, although his divorce was not formalized until two years later. The album begins with the title track, making it clear where the shots are going: "Your place is among the wildflowers, Your place is on a boat at sea, Sailing, killing the hours, You belong in a place where you feel free". Petty is accompanied by his beloved Gibson SJ-200 that would give way to a custom model, the Tom Petty SJ-200 Wildflower.


The album has a quiet, pastoral start, reminiscent of Neil Young's After The Gold Rush. Next up is the album's biggest hit, You Don't Know How It Feels, the last time a Petty single cracked the top 20 on the singles charts, thanks also to a video in permanent rotation on MTV in which Petty can be seen wielding his beloved Gibson Firebird. The harmonica and playful melody take us back to the Dylan of Rainy Day Woman, precisely the song Petty and the Heartbreakers played during Dylan's 30th Anniversary concert in 1992. The lyrics make it clear that marijuana had become an essential part of his diet, as he sang: "so let's get to the point, let's roll another joint" – which became the most celebrated part in all his concerts.

Time To Move On
recalls Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love, another album marked by a broken relationship, but You Wreck Me reminds us that behind Petty are the Heartbreakers, including Mike Campbell who was responsible for the music on that song and for bringing the house down with his Gibson ES-335 plugged into an arsenal of amps, such as a Vox AC30, Fender Bassman and a Fender Deluxe. On Cabin Down Below you can also hear them enjoying their own energy. It's a move they repeat again in the explosive Honey Bee, built on a sculptural riff and whose performance on Saturday Night Live meant the return of Dave Grohl to the drums after Kurt Cobain's death and an offer to become the permanent drummer of the Heartbreakers that the former Nirvana man turned down to start with the Foo Fighters.


But, beyond those three bursts of electricity, Wildflowers is a more melancholic and calm album, with glorious examples such as It's Good To Be King and To Find A Friend, which reminds us of the best of Harrison, and is the song with the lyrics that opens this article, in which Petty pours irony on his own personal situation. There is also room for a power pop gem, influenced by his beloved Byrds, called A Higher Place, with one of his most luminous melodies.

Despite this, this is one of his darkest and most melancholic albums, and also one of his two best. A work in whose realization Petty experienced an enormous creative explosion, with enough material to edit a double album with 25 songs, something that his company denied him - but that finally saw the light in 2020 with the remarkable Wildflowers and All the Rest.