On Record: Keeping some hard promises
Review by Bill DeYoung
Gainesville Sun - October 28, 1994
WILDFLOWERS | Tom Petty -- Warner Brothers
This extraordinary album -- due in stores Tuesday -- could only come at this point in Petty's long career, when the pressure's off him to rock like a wildman, and he can write thoughtful, introspective words with what seems like conviction.
As always, the songs are about relationships, and the ebb and flow of love and life -- the title song reads like a sweet eulogy, while the closer, "Wake Up Time," is a plea for re-birth.
It's not that pensiveness is new to Petty; just that he's never been this clear-headed about it. "What would I give to start all over again/To clean up my mistakes," he sings in "Only a Broken Heart," and later he resolves "I'm so tired of being tired/Sure as night will follow day/Most things I worry about/Never happen anyway" ("Crawling Back to You").
"Wildflowers" takes a lot of chances -- lyrically, sonically, and musically -- and most of them work confidently. Rick Rubin's spare production (remember, he did "Mary Jane's Last Dance") is light years from the Jeff Lynne wall of sound that characterized "Full Moon Fever" and just about ruined "Into the Great Wide Open."
Rubin can take a tune with the patented Petty three-chord riff ("You Wreck Me") and make it sing like a brand new whistle. Even the slow, acoustic songs -- "Wildflowers" and the bluesy "Don't Fade On Me" -- benefit from Rubin's less-is-more approach. The album took more than a year to complete; apparently, simplicity is harder than overproduction.
The prize finalists also take familiar notes from the TP songbook, turning them into new and ultimately exciting ideas. "It's Good to Be King" features a wry, grinning Petty looking at his life and singing "It's good to make friends, it's good to meet girls" and later, in a voice thick with sarcasm, "Yeah, I'll be king when dogs get wings." The song's multi-tracked vocal harmonies soar, and Michael Kamen's string arrangement is that rare breed, the violin score that actually works in a pop song.
Likewise, "House in the Woods" is a scorching blues/rock song, with one of Petty's best-ever deceptively simple melodies, blazed to Badfinger/Bad Company heaven by a honking horn section and Mike Campbell's stinging guitar lines. "House in the Words" and "You Wreck me" are the sorts of songs Petty does best -- they sound like no-brainers, but just let you or I try to pull one of 'em out of a hat...
There are a few token rock tunes ("Honey Bee," "Cabin Down Below"), some '60s pop ("Higher Place," "You Don't Know How It Feels") and a better remake of "Yer So Bad" ("To Find a Friend"), but they're just small pieces of a bigger picture.
The picture is Tom Petty, recording artist, at 44 years old, getting comfortable with his place in the frame.