Just over three years ago, the world lost one of it’s finest songwriters. Tom Petty was 66 years old when he died of an accidental prescription painkiller overdose. The news broke one week after the end of his band the Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary Tour, and Petty would leave behind a shocked fanbase and a seminal collection of music that typified the California rock sound of the late 1970s through to the mid-1990s. Not bad for a guy from Florida.
After a spotless run of releases with the Heartbreakers – starting with 1976’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which featured his signature song ‘American Girl’ – Petty released his first solo album in 1989, the rootsy ‘Full Moon Fever’, packed from start to finish with flawless hits, including the unparalleled ‘Free Fallin’’, ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’. Five years and a couple of Heartbreakers albums later and Petty would get the solo bug again, this time releasing the rather more stripped-down ‘Wildflowers’. Despite its less ostentatious take on his all-out rock’n’roll sound, it would become his fastest-ever selling album, not to mention his first with producer Rick Rubin, who had also just started recording with another American legend, Johnny Cash.
Petty’s original plan was for ‘Wildflowers’ to be a 25-track double album, but Warner Bros. executive Lenny Waronker made it clear he thought that was far too long. Instead the record was cut back to 15 tracks, but just after Petty finished his 2017 Heartbreakers tour, he revealed to the Los Angeles Times that he was going to hit his archive, tidy up the final songs that didn’t make the cut and put out the version of ‘Wildflowers’ he always wanted to. Three years after his death, Petty’s vision has finally come to fruition.
So alongside the original ‘Wildflowers’ tracks, a confessional collection lead by the hazy harmonica stomp of lead single ‘You Don’t Know How it Feels’, finally comes ‘All The Rest’, made up of the 10 abandoned songs, including five unreleased tracks and alternative versions of four songs that would later appear on the soundtrack to 1996 Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston rom-com She’s The One.
Of the tracks that didn’t make the original cut, ‘Leave Virginia Alone’ wasn’t destined to sit in storage for too long. Rod Stewart covered the song in 1995, but now we get to hear Petty’s own take, a chugging pop hit that’s neatly reminiscent of ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding’, written and performed by Nick Lowe and later covered by Elvis Costello.
The short-but-sweet ‘California’ too has ‘lost hit’ written all over it, a perky love song to Petty’s adopted home, digging into classic LA songwriter imagery of the state being washed away into the ocean (cc: Warren Zevon) as Petty happily croons, “California’s been good to me / I hope it don’t fall into the sea” over dreamy backing vocals and harmonica. Warning: the US’s continued travel ban on visitors from the UK due to Covid restrictions will make the hearts of any Brits listening to this sink when they realise that it’ll be months and months until they can sample any California sunshine for themselves.
‘California’ is perhaps the most joyful moment of the ‘new’ material. In contrast, ‘Hope You Never’ is a melancholy, downbeat blues ballad, a heartbroken Petty – who wrote ‘Wildflowers’ at the start of the dissolution of his marriage and just before a five-year addition to heroin – dropping heavy hints about a relationship breakdown, glumly singing, “I hope you never fall in love with somebody like you”. Of its bald emotion, Rick Rubin said of the track during a recent Twitter playback session. “I love this song… Another song that so clearly belongs on the original album.”
The finger-picked ‘Harry Green’, acoustic ‘Confusion Wheel’ and sparse ‘Climb The Hill Blues’ see Petty dig deeper into his despondent energy, but are no less powerful because of it, the latter song returning him to plugged-in, stadium-friendly form.
When listening to the sheer quality of the 10 tracks that have now gained their rightful place as an official part of the Wildflowers family, it’s hard to see how any label bigwig could tell one of their biggest artists not to bother with them. From the start, it’s clear that this isn’t some posthumous dig around in a bucket of old offcuts in an attempt to bleed some money out of dedicated fans, but rather a slick and gratifying fulfilment of one of Petty’s long standing wishes. ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest’ feels less like grave-robbing and more like bringing back one of the all-time greats back to life.
Release date: October 15
Record label: Warner Records