Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Into The Great Wide Open (1991)

Tom Petty is one of those guys I always took for granted until it was too late. His music was just always there, wherever you went, so the thought of actually pulling out a Tom Petty album and playing it through never really occurred to me. Pretty much since I started my pre-teen indoctrination into rock & roll, Petty's music was always being played on the radio, or in the restaurant, or at camp, or wherever I happened to be at any given moment. 1979's Damn The Torpedoes, which arrived when I was about 13, was pretty much omnipresent, a simple fact of life, its multiple singles inescapable at the time (and ever since). And every couple years thereafter, there'd be another album, with another perfect radio-friendly single or two, and a bunch of album tracks that were perfectly fine. At some point, it seemed entirely predictable and formulaic yet warmly comforting; you'd have the obvious hits, a couple Byrdsy, jangly ballads and mid-tempo pop tunes, some swampy blues-based tunes like a latter-day CCR, maybe a riff-driven hard rocker or two. Occasionally he'd mix it up a bit, like the faux-psychedelia of "Don't Come Around Here No More" or the post-new-wave slickness of Let Me Up or the narrative storytelling of The Last DJ. But for the most part, you pretty much knew exactly what you'd be hearing when you picked up the new Petty album.

But after he sadly passed away a few years back, I took another spin through his catalog, and was impressed by how much truly great music he'd made in the years since my youth. I'm particularly won over by his '89-'94 run, bookended by the two albums he recorded without his longtime band the Heartbreakers (Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers), with this one falling in the middle. And Into The Great Wide Open is probably my favorite. Yeah, you've got those perfect singles in the title track and "Learning to Fly." But the whole album is unusually compelling. Maybe it's the prevalence of those inherently lovable jangly mid-tempo tracks. Jeff Lynne's production, often the bane of an album, is restrained and supportive of the music. 

Perhaps the most unexpected realization was that the album sounds a lot like the pastoral jangle of the Feelies' The Good Earth -- presumably an album Petty had never heard, but a personal favorite; the similarity between Petty's Southern rasp and Glenn Mercer's Lou Reed roughness really grabbed me.

Anyway, yeah, it's just one more solidly comfortable Petty album among many. But it's the one I find myself spinning more than the rest.

Here's that classic video for the title track:
 ...and "Learning to Fly":
Here's a performance of "Kings Highway":


  1. Humanfund here. Not convinced, at all. All I hear is pretty simplistic pop with a bit of twang, very Nashville ready. Lyrics are also fairly vapid.

    I know, taste is taste. And I appreciate the attempt to go beyond the obvious. Guess I'm still partial to the acrid lyrics and sinuous guitar lines of the angry young man phase, esp. The Waiting and Breakdown.

    Maybe I need to transcend my own angry young man phase. Maybe I'm getting too old to try new music. Maybe maturing is a way to remain youthful.

    1. Oh, I get it. I spent the weekend listening to the whole back catalog, making myself a career overview mix, and nothing has the energy and verve of Damn The Torpedoes. That one is still an absolute monster. But I do enjoy his latter day work, from Full Moon Fever on, in a very different way, as mature music, admittedly sometimes a little bland, better as gently played music in the living room than crank it up in the car with the windows down music. But there's a lot more room in my life for that these days, and I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I once might have.

  2. I totally agree that Tom Petty was so easy to take for granted because he was such a consistently solid presence in music for so long. But when you take a step back and look at all of the great songs he wrote, it's hard to not be impressed. I love his early hits and think that Damn The Torpedoes is a pretty undeniably great record, but for my money he peaked in the '90s. I also really like Full Moon Fever and just listened to Into the Great Wide Open today for the first time in a long time thanks to you and really enjoyed it, but I most love his next two albums that he did with Rick Rubin (I like Echo too just not as much). I agree that Jeff Lynne stays out of the way more than he usually does when working with Petty, but I think Rubin's stripped back style is perfect for Petty's sound. Wildflowers is well loved (and deservedly so), but She's the One is much less discussed and is not often spoke highly of - even by Petty himself. Call me crazy, but I think it's his best album. It's full of great songs, it's beautifully produced and the band sounds great. It's definitely worth a listen!

    1. She's The One really doesn't get a fair shake. I think it's on par with the trio that preceded it. I think Walls #3 is as good as anything he's ever written, and California is great (as of course is his Lucinda Williams cover). I assume the album is overlooked because it's viewed as a soundtrack (to a movie I've never seen) rather than a proper Petty album, which is a mistake.


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