SPIN — January 1995

Tom Petty | Wildflowers | Warner Bros
Review by Jim Greer
SPIN — January 1995

I had intended to download “You Don’t Know How It Feels” off Tom Petty’s latest album (second solo record, I guess, although distinguishing either of those from Heartbreaker-associated efforts seems close to pointless, unless you happen to be a Heartbreaker) from America Online, but when I found the process would take “approximately 1.3 hours,” I decided just to listen to the tape a few more times. Although I wondered if something as organic as listening to a Tom Petty album would be altered significantly by hearing it trickle tinnily from my ancient Mac SE, it turned out to not really matter; I had just as hard a time trying to hear the record through the mechanical precision of Rick Rubin’s production.

Petty has an evocative voice, and writes great, simple melodies. These are his strong points, and both are amply in evidence on Wildflowers. Also in evidence are crisply recorded acoustic guitars, big fat fucking drums, and a churchy, pristine stuffiness that’s just about tolerable on the folk numbers, but swallows up all attempts to capture some of the starkness of Johnny Cash’s latest (also produced by Rubin, with better results — where Cash needed some straightening out, Petty could benefit from a looser treatment of his naturally laid-back style). As a result, Petty’s well-aged sense of slack has been partly blunted on Wildflowers by the reverence with which the music has been approached.

Nonetheless, there’s no denying the languid grace of Petty’s songwriting. “Hard on Me,” “To Find a Friend,” and the title track are particularly fine, and even the fatuous strings and less-than-inspired lyrics of “A Higher Place” can’t conceal the quality of its craftsmanship. I know that such things as sincerity and honestly are hallmarks of the strain of American rock that both Petty and Rubin practice, but I’ve always preferred the more straight-forward pop sensibility of such Petty songs as “Into the Great Wide Open” and “American Girl.” As enjoyable a record as Wildflowers turns out to be, a little immaturity might have helped.

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