There were two big problems with picking ten records for my Desert Island Albums series: 1) Only ten records! 2) Those posts were really time-consuming to write, as they often approached two-thousand words.
There are so many more albums I want to write about, but I know people didn’t get to the end of those posts unless they were as attached to the particular album as I was. So I’m going to continue with a series of “Albums I Love,” which are great records that didn’t make the Desert Island cut but still deserve to be highlighted. These posts will be a lot shorter, and not as strictly formatted as the Desert Island pieces. First up is the last album I cut from my top 10: Tom Petty’s Wildflowers.
Wildflowers was released in November 1994 as a Tom Petty solo album. Petty worked with super-producer Rick Rubin on the record, and while it’s officially a solo album, the vast majority of the sessions were played by Petty’s longtime band, the Heartbreakers (the same is true of Petty’s previous, equally excellent solo record, Full Moon Fever).
I’ll get right to the reason I love Wildflowers: It’s an incredibly sad and beautiful breakup album. The songs are infused with a deep sense of melancholy. Just look at the first three tracks:
1. The title track, with its imagery of a girl “among the wildflowers” or “in a boat out at sea,” destined to travel anywhere that she feels free. The narrator of the song tells the girl to “run away, go find a lover,” to “let your heart be your guide,” with a clear implication that he wishes he could be that lover, but that he’s either let her down, or just isn’t capable of being the one who can make her happy. But the music, rather than being sad, is jangly, pretty, even hopeful for her.
2. The album’s hit single, You Don’t Know How It Feels, with the chorus: “Let’s get to the point/Let’s roll another joint/And turn the radio loud/I’m too alone to be proud/And you don’t know how it feels … To be me.” It’s perfect because everyone knows exactly how this feels, but when we’re busted and heartbroken, we all want to believe that no one else will understand. Alanis Morissette may have misunderstood the concept of irony, but Tom Petty gets it. Also, the video is great.
3. The soft breakup song Time To Move On, which features both the deeply affecting verse “Sometime later, getting the words wrong/Wasting the meaning and losing the rhyme/Nauseous adrenaline/Like breakin’ up a dogfight/Like a deer in the headlights/Frozen in real time/I’m losing my mind,” but then follows it with a chorus that’s forward-looking and affirming: “Time to move on, time to get going/What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing/But under my feet, baby, grass is growing/It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going.” Don’t overlook the wah-wah pedaled guitar solo on this tune.
Of course, not all the songs are soft: You Wreck Me is an uptempo rocker, and It’s Good To Be King, while a slow jam, has become a Heartbreakers concert-staple, one they often stretch to nine- and ten-minutes in length to showcase lead guitarist Mike Campbell.
But in the end, my favorite moments on Wildflowers have always been those quiet, sweetly melancholy ones. The plaintive line “don’t fade on me,” less sung than spoken; the chorus of Hard To Find a Friend, “The days went by like paper in the wind/Everything changed, then changed again/It’s hard to find a friend”; and maybe my favorite, the last verse of Crawling Back to You, “I’m so tired of being tired/Sure as night will follow day/Most things I worry about/Never happen anyway,” giving way to the lovely harmony of the chorus: “Oooh ooh, I keep crawling back to you.”
Wildflowers is an album you listen to when you feel broken and lonely, but you know being around other people won’t help you feel better. It’s a wise album, recorded by a 44-year old artist looking back across a life full of success but also dotted with mistakes and regrets–as even the most successful lives inevitably are. An artist who named his band the Heartbreakers, and who definitely knows how that feels.