Expansive Reissue of Tom Petty’s Landmark ‘Wildflowers’ Offers Addition Insights into Creative Process

Tom Petty | Wildflowers & All the Rest | (Warner Bros.)
4 1/2 out of five stars

It ought never to come as any surprise that the premature death of an iconic artist often opens the floodgates to a variety of compilations, anthologies and unreleased material. Two previous collections, An American Treasure and Best of Everything, each offered an early indication of what was bound to come, but with the four CD expanded reissue of Wildflowers & All the Rest, those who are passionate about Petty are given a treasure trove of unheard recordings, demos and an entire disc of live performances recorded in the aftermath of the original album’s release. It’s a sumptuous array to be sure, and one that further expands upon Petty’s lingering legacy.

The original Wildflowers was, of course, yet another high plateau in a career marked by one milestone after another. Although ostensively regarded as a Tom Petty solo album, it featured the Heartbreakers as able support. It was helmed by producer Rick Rubin, who added his usual finesse to the proceedings while forsaking the darker designs that was often so intrinsic to his signature sound. The original album featured no less than 15 songs, four of which would become indelible standards within his cumulative catalog — the tender title track itself, the emotionally assertive “Walls,” a venerable yet vulnerable  “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the more virulent “You Wreck Me” specifically. Even now it’s regarded as one of Petty’s best efforts, and given this current rerelease, it also offers an ideal showcase for work that slipped from the spotlight.

That’s especially true of the disc titled All the Rest, a set of songs originally destined for the original offering. Apparently, Warner Bros. balked at the prospect of a double album and the ten tracks that surface here for the first time were relegated to the cutting room floor. In a way, it’s easy to understand how some of them failed to find favor, given the generally laidback sound of “Leave Virginia Alone” and “Something Could Happen” in particular. Good, but not great, they were better suited as B-sides and incidental add-ons. That said, several tracks do shine — the upbeat enthusiasm of “California,” the quiet caress of “Harry Green” and the gentle yet determined “Hung Up and Overdue” especially. Still with 15 songs already committed for inclusion, the possibility of additional offerings was, by necessity, wholly negated.

That makes disc number three, Home Recordings, something of a revelation all on its own. It features fifteen full demos of songs initially intended for the whole of a double album, all 25 included. Remarkably then, despite the fact that these performances are Petty’s alone, and conveyed with little more than voice and an acoustic guitar, they capture the essence of his intents. Some of the numbers — the aforementioned “California” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Wildflowers,” the outtake “Confusion Wheel,” and the otherwise unknown “There’s a Break in the Rain (Have Love Will Travel)” — maintain the easy affability found in the final finished versions, making each an excellent offering that can stand on its own. Naturally, given the setting, they boast an exceptional intimacy that reflects the emotional core that sustained the album overall. Surprisingly though, “A Higher Place” features a revved up rhythm section that brings it close to the standard of a full production.

That leaves the final disc, Wildflowers Live, fourteen songs featuring material mostly culled from the album itself. In performance, the material was fully fleshed out, serving as a reminder of just how sturdy that sentiment translated to a concert setting. So too, the liner notes and commentary provided by Rubin and the various members of the Heartbreakers offer additional insight into Petty’s perspective and the recording process overall.

Granted, having to repurchase an album one already owns can be a questionable proposition. Which makes for all the more reason to opt for the four disc version of Wildflowers & All the Rest rather than the two CD set. Given the plethora of riches — some 54 tracks in all — the additional investment is well worth scraping for those lost coins in the coach.

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