For an artist who built his career on a certain degree of stubbornness, Wildflowers wasn’t just an admission of vulnerability, it was like standing naked. After two decades of marriage, Petty was heading toward divorce—a personal cataclysm even more pronounced on 1999’s Echo, but you could hear the heartbreak coming. “Wildflowers” isn’t just a metaphor for beauty, but a beauty you can’t possess without ruining it. And when the friends do show up (“You Don’t Know How It Feels”), you suddenly run cold and self-protective. When they rock—“You Wreck Me,” “Honey Bee”—they do it like desperate men. “It’s good to be king/And have your own way,” Petty sings on “It’s Good to Be King.” Sure. The subtext being that it’s a kingdom of one.
“It’s a really special record because it has these little surprising things you wouldn't notice,” Heartbreakers lifer Benmont Tench tells Apple Music. “I didn’t for decades know that there are lines in songs where Mike [Campbell] doubled the piano with something called Marxophone. They're all these little things that make the textures a little bit fuller, but never make it sound like a wall of sound. Or it really doesn't sound like anything except the guy singing.” The magic, of course, is that despite the effort and attention, Wildflowers sounds natural and unforced—a sense of intuitiveness attributed, in part, to the influence of new producer Rick Rubin. Petty was writing from a quieter place now. But like the songbird whose song only grows in complexity the less noise he has to compete with (it’s true), he was finding nuance in his solitude, and was lucky enough to keep company with a flock who could hold the space.