For his second ‘solo’ album Tom Petty did the smart thing and recruited Rick Rubin as the producer. Rubin’s organic and raw production methods were in sharp contrast to the synthetic and processed sounds that Petty’s albums (both solo, and with his celebrated backing band, The Heartbreakers) had suffered from since the lack-luster Southern Accents. Having proved himself after producing a pair of tracks for a Greatest Hits package, a whole album of Rubin produced material by Petty was a well timed project. While Petty’s closest contemporaries were hitting difficult patches for a variety of different reasons (Bob Dylan suffering an extended period of writers block, Neil Young attempting to gain generation X Credibility when he really had no need to and Bruce Springsteen floundering without the E Street Band), the stage was set for Tom Petty to prove once and for all that he was as good as any of his more illustrious friends. With the opportunity offering itself in such an obvious manner, Petty grabbed his phone book and called in a few friends to lend a helping hand on what would be one of the best albums of his career.
Although Wildflowers sees guest stars such as Carl Wilson and Ringo Starr make an appearance, it is far from a vanity project, as Petty distills everything that was great from his previous albums into a single sixty three minute shot. The album demonstrated that Petty could do singer-songwriter introspection, rambling narratives and huge sounding rock’n’roll with ease without once losing its way or lurching uneasily as the pace changed. The free and easy organic sound provided by Rubin’s production gave the whole album a unifying dynamic that bound the album together as a whole and made it more than sum of its considerable parts.
While Wildflowers isn’t a true solo album, as long-time Petty second-banana and understated guitar hero Mike Campbell appears on every track and keyboard player Benmont Tench appears on all but two cuts. As a result Wildflowers sounds every inch a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album, despite bass player Howie Epstein only appearing on half of the tracks here and then usually on harmony vocals. Long time Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch doesn’t even get a mention in the credits as Steve Ferrone takes the lions share of the drum duties and has appeared on every subsequent Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album.
Picking out highlights of the album is a difficult task as there’s not a single dud on here. Sometimes the rockers like “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, “You Wreck Me” and “Honey Bee” are the best parts, other times the trio of slightly longer tracks that close the album really do hit the spot. Some tracks can take you by surprise as well – I’ve owned this album for twenty years and it was only listening to it recently that I realised what a brilliant song “Hard On Me” is.
Wildflowers is an album that seems oddly immune to changing times and fashions, as it still sounds unexpectedly fresh and contemporary. Yes it’s a mature album and it doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that Petty was no longer the young buck that wrote “American Girl” and “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll”, but there in lies its strength as Petty no longer felt the need to compete with younger and more fashionable bands and was comfortable with his place in the grand scheme of things.