By Rick Mitchell
Houston Chronicle — Sunday, October 30, 1994
Wildflowers | Tom Petty | Warner Bros. | ★★★★
Wildflowers is Tom Petty’s second solo album, although the distinction between his solo projects and group albums is merely a matter of degree.
Due out Tuesday, Wildflowers was produced by Rick Rubin with Petty and guitarist/co-producer Mike Campbell. Keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Howie Epstein from Petty’s Heartbreakers also appear on the album, along with drummer Steve Ferrone and percussionist Lenny Castro.
Of course, Petty has always written and sung all the material for the Heartbreakers. But he seems to take more stylistic chances working under his own name. Wildflowers is the most ambitious album of his career, eclipsing his first solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever.
While he arrived on the cusp of the new wave in the mid-’70s, Petty is either a second-generation rock classicist or a premature old fogy, depending on your point of view. He’s adept at recycling melodic fragments from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Kinks, the Byrds and other ’60s icons.
He even brings in Ringo Starr and Carl Wilson (of the Beach Boys) for brief guest appearances, although at this late date Petty confers more legitimacy on them than the other way around.
But while Petty still proudly displays his influences on his sleeve, Wildflowers is a deeply personal statement. From the wistful title track to the resolute closer, Wake Up Time, the album is built around the central theme of emotional survival and perseverance.
The acoustic Time to Move On recalls Dylan in his last great romantic period, circa Blood on the Tracks, while the Byrds-like Higher Place could have been written with Houston-area flood victims in mind.
The hard-rocking You Wreck Me features a searing Campbell guitar riff reminiscent of Runnin’ Down a Dream from Full Moon Fever.
There are lighter moments scattered among the 15 tracks. The lascivious Honey Bee features Petty doing a dead-on Mick Jagger imitation, while Cabin Down Below could be John Fogerty’s Old Man Down the Road on the prowl during mating season. Good to Be King, which employs a full symphony orchestra, dryly pokes fun at rock-star pretensions.
But the album’s true heart can be found in the details of songs such as To Find a Friend, which begins with the verse, “In the middle of his life / He left his wife / And went off to be bad / Boy, it was sad … “
While the narrator, who may or may not be singing about himself, obviously hasn’t lost his sense of humor, he leaves no doubt that it really is a sad situation.
Petty makes his clearest statement of purpose on the first single, You Don’t Know How it Feels (to Be Me). In his best Dylanesque nasal drawl, he intones, “My old man was born to rock / He’s still trying to beat the clock / Think of me what you will / I’ve got a little space to fill … “
As long as there’s a space to fill in rock for well-crafted songs written from an intelligent and compassionate adult point of view, this premature old fogy will continue to beat the clock.