It’s easy to think of Tom Petty’s 1994 “solo album,” “Wildflowers,” as a cult record — the underdog in a catalog full of bigger and brasher choices, revered for its willingness to forgo the classic Heartbreakers band sound in favor of more abundantly acoustic textures, and for letting down the good-time veil for more personal glimpses into his not always so happy-go-lucky psyche. There’s just one problem with this unified theory of “Wildflowers”: It was actually a huge freaking hit. Plus, the Heartbreakers ended up being the studio band, essentially, whether it was planned that way or not, and several of the album’s songs became concert staples up to Petty’s 2017 death. But we can be forgiven if we misremember just how folky or outright confessional it was. It has so much of that intimacy that it’s the kind of record you want to claim as your secret favorite, even if the real secret may be that it was a smash.
The mythology goes deeper than just the album’s qualities; it’s a matter of quantity too. Petty had planned “Wildflowers” as a double album but was talked into trimming it down to a mere 15-song mini-epic. In that way, it’s attracted the kind of eternal fan speculation that’s surrounded other albums once intended to be doubles, like Paul McCartney’s “Red Rose Speedway” or ELO’s “Secret Messages,” both of which were finally released in two-LP expansions in the last couple years. In those cases, though, the dream was that imperfect albums might become masterpieces, unexpurgated. But “Wildflowers” seemed pretty perfect as it was. Wouldn’t re-additions a quarter-century later risk seeming like getting into the weeds?
Petty was as smart as he looked, so rather than resequence the original, in the years before his death he came up with a disc of 10 outtakes, called “All the Rest,” that would have its own running order and implied storyline. That previously unheard 10-song studio set is the foundation of a series of new “Wildflowers” collections that range from two to five CDs (or five to nine LPs) — additionally augmented by compendiums of his fully produced home demos, experimental full- band studio takes and concert performances of this material. With fascinating oral-history annotation for all 70 tracks in the “super-deluxe” edition, the augmented “Wildflowers” is the best and most justified boxed set of this kind since the Beatles’ White Album compendium. It’s one of the ones you’d load under your arm in a fire.
Petty was on fire during this period, as the presence of 32 distinct compositions in the big box attests. Although it’s tough to fathom why he left “Something Could Happen” out originally, the reason reveals itself: It needed to be sequenced as an album opener, and the “Wildflowers” title track already owned that slot in ’94; on “All the Rest,” it gets its premonitory-sounding shot. “Leave Virginia Alone” finally gets the fate it deserves, which was not to be handed over to Rod Stewart for a cover. The closing of “All the Rest” brings in Carl Wilson and Ringo Starr as guests on “Hung Up and Overdue,” which weirdly does marry the Beatles’ and Brian Wilson’s styles. Even the live disc brings surprises, like “Drivin’ Down to Georgia,” a frantic, early-Heartbreakers-style barnburner they did try putting down in the studio, in a not-bad version that would have seemed out of place on “Wildflowers,” but really only ever perfected live.
It’s not only the stuff left off the original release that’s revelatory. The live-album portion has a nearly 12-minute “It’s Good to Be King” that’ll be your new go-to version. That song, like many from “Wildflowers,” is sadder than you probably remember it (unless you’re a true cultist, in which case you already revel in those undertones). But the handful of loud blues rockers, like “Honey Bee,” continue to offer noisy comic relief as interstitial material among the album’s dominant tender existential crises. It’s no wonder that, 26 years on, “Wildflowers” seems like the last classic-rock record that a plurality of fans would consider a classic. As rock ’n’ roll — arguably a cult now — might say of its former self, as channeled through this set: It was good to be king.
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