“Sometimes you gotta trust yourself,” Tom Petty sings on “California,” one of the many alternative tracks that never made the original release of Petty’s 1994 masterpiece Wildflowers. “California” is no new revelation: it’s one of several songs from the Wildflowers sessions that, strangely enough, would appear two years later on the She’s the One soundtrack.
But knowing that we should always trust Petty’s artistic vision is, nevertheless, one of the foremost takeaways from the sprawling five-CD expanded Wildflowers & All The Rest, an immaculately curated version of Petty’s original plan to make a double album (an idea that his label, Warner Bros, shot down for a variety of reasons), plus several extra albums worth of outtakes, live performances, and home recordings.
The collection of songs that would have comprised the second album of Wildflowers is the most revealing: long-shelved tracks like the finger-picked “Harry Green,” or the dreamy mid-tempo “Something Could Happen,” or the expansive power ballad “Somewhere Under Heaven” (released as a premature Wildflowers box set teaser in 2015) further expand the vastness of the palette Petty was working in when he began recording the album in 1992, making the original album’s varied-yet-cohesive texture feel all the more impressive.
The most illuminating moments from the homemade recordings and alternate takes, meanwhile, are early sketches of now-classics. The compulsive draw that compels the protagonist of “Crawling Back To You” feels even more spectral and relentless in its ghostly demo form, while the more guitar-heavy alternate version takes the song into Replacements power ballad territory. Petty sounds more zen-like and at ease than ever musing over the pastoral peace of eternal title track, and he sounds newly spontaneous on a freewheeling take on “You Wreck Me” that lets piano take over for the guitar for the song’s famous riff. “This is a little number we used to do down in Mississippi,” he joke-mumbles before starting the tune.
“This song is about a guy who, probably never happened to anybody in the audience, but, he gets to be middle-aged and leaves his wife, and goes off, and buys a fast car and gets drunk a lot,” Petty says with a nearly audible smirk before introducing a live version of “To Find a Friend.” If, in the years since Petty released his 1994 classic album, he slowly revealed, on-stage and in interviews, more about the darkly personal inspirations for the record, this retrospective box does the same for the sprawling, bursting creative process that went into making Wildflowers. It’s the definitive artistic statement that newly illuminates one of the most fruitful, inspired periods of the American legend’s career.