Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'Into the Great Wide Open' at 25: Classic Track-by-Track Album Lookback
On 1989's Full Moon Fever, nominally his first solo album, Tom Petty proved he didn't need all of the Heartbreakers all of the time. Guitarist Mike Campbell co-produced and played on every track, and everyone else in the band except drummer Stan Lynch contributed to the record, but the X factor was Jeff Lynne. Serving as co-writer and co-producer, the former ELO frontman gave Petty's rootsy power-pop an airtight snap perfect for radio. The record reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and cemented Petty as one of the all-time greats.
For the follow-up, Into the Great Wide Open (released 25 years ago today, on July 2, 1991), Petty re-upped with Lynne and reunited the Heartbreakers. The results are about what you'd expect: more retro-minded rock ’n’ roll songs presented with modern sheen and maybe a hair more oomph than fans got on Full Moon Fever. Despite the lack of monster pop singles like “Free Fallin’,” which became Petty’s calling card, Into the Great Wide Open isn't an inferior sequel. Like so many entries in Petty's catalog -- Wildflowers, Highway Companion, perhaps even Hypnotic Eye -- it's an unassuming classic whose brilliance hides in plain sight.
Petty is often described as workmanlike and dependable. As Into the Great Wide Open shows, he's a profound storyteller with remarkable word economy. Relative to Full Moon Fever, the material is more somber and reflective, even as Petty returns to many of the same themes and locations. The title track, all about a Hollywood downfall, is this disc’s “Free Fallin’,” while “Learning to Fly” offers wobblier uplift than “I Won’t Back Down.” In the scorching-rocker department, “Makin’ Some Noise” is no “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” but it performs the necessary Heartbreakers alchemy of turning steering wheels to drum sets.
After Into the Great Wide Open, Petty released what many casual fans consider his most essential LP: 1993’s Greatest Hits. On long drives, that collection should never be more than an aux chord or a glovebox reach away, and neither should Into the Great Wide Open. From lesser-known gems “Kings Highway” and “Two Gunslingers” to the Drifters-esque closer “Built to Last,” these dozen songs are among the finest he’s ever written. Read on for a track-by-track review.
“Learning to Fly”: Using producer Jeff Lynn’s hazy new-old jingle-jangle like a walking stick, Petty tells his up-from-nothing story like a wiseman speaking in parables. The language is simple enough to make you think there’s more -- and actually, the “sea may burn” line was inspired by the Gulf War -- though it’s really a straightforward song about feeling rudderless and vulnerable to fate’s whims. Petty is neither scared nor angry. He just keeps practicing his landings.
“Kings Highway”: A rich churn of shimmering guitars push Petty toward the promised land. This is actually like his version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Promised Land,” except Petty gets there in just two verses and 3:07. It’s one of the man’s all-time great driving songs, and he’s got a lot.
“Into the Great Wide Open”: Even without a third verse to wrap things up, it’s pretty obvious how things will end for poor Eddie, the starry-eyed dreamer Petty describes in this archetypal Hollywood cautionary tale. As our hero meets a girl, makes a hit record, and rockets toward fleeting celebrity, Petty and the Heartbreakers deliver a slower, more autumnal version of the vintage Cali rock heard on the opening tracks. The music seems to know something Eddie doesn’t, and the video -- starring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway -- spells out precisely what that is.
“Two Gunslingers”: So much of life involves people fighting and others watching, often cheering. Petty isn’t into the kill-or-be-killed thing, and on this celebration of living your own life, he suggests he’s not alone. In the second verse, after a gunfight is called off because the contestants don’t feel like slaughtering each other for everyone’s amusement, one spectator tells his wife: “That’s the last one of these gunfights you’re ever gonna drag me to.”
“In the Dark of the Sun”: Built for the point in the drive where the mind starts to wander, this perfectly fine album cut finds Petty approaching the optimism of “Kings Highway” in a more oblique way. He’s eyeing “a better place,” and he know who he wants to go there with. And yet he’s filled with uncertainty right up until the end: “Will I sail into the heavens / Constellations in my eyes?”
“All or Nothing”: A cold wind cuts through L.A. thanks to some stinging electric guitars. As with Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” a lot hinges on your reading of “daddy” in the opening line. Petty seems to actually mean it in a fatherly sense, which suggests an abuse situation, which might explain why the girl he’s singing to falls for his “fallen arrow” character in the second verse. They’re chasing smog rainbows, these troubled strivers, and Mike Campbell sends them off with a howling lead that sure sounds like crying.
“All the Wrong Reasons”: The sweet Byrdsian sheen recalls “Free Fallin',” and the opening line of the second verse (“she grew up hard and she grew up fast”) predicts “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which was already gestating and released a couple years later. The rest is Petty revisiting of themes found throughout the album. A family loses its fortune, and a young daughter grows up hell-bent on material success, not unlike Eddie or the misfits in “All or Nothing.” There’s empathy in the way Petty sings this one, though.
“Too Good to Be True”: The tossed-off Heartbreakers 101 rock ’n’ roll backing masks another stellar example of Petty giving just enough to details to tell a coherent story. It’s about a woman who seizes some kind of opportunity and winds up “sitting in the traffic alone,” discovering that freedom isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. She’s like Janet Leigh in Psycho!, before she gets to the Bates Motel. Just like on the title track, Petty knows how this movie ends.
“Out in the Cold”: The similarities to “Runnin’ Down a Dream” are striking, right down to the opening line. Petty’s 1989 hit begins, “It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down.” This one goes, “The day fell down, the air got cold.” That’s a good indication of the very different place this driving song is headed. Petty spends the second verse waking from a dream and fumbling for his keys as he readjusts to reality. At that point, all he can do is bundle up.
“You and I Will Meet Again”: This is unusual for a Heartbreakers track: The best part comes in the final minute, after Petty has stopped singing and Benmont Tench’s searing organ gets all tangled up with the psychedelic guitars, chem-trail background voices, and errant piano showboating. Up to that point, it’s just more proof that even minor Petty compositions circa 1991 were pretty major.
“Makin’ Some Noise”: Seemingly built for the stage -- setlist.com lists 20 airings on Petty’s 2015 tour -- “Makin’ Some Noise” should be the official them song if the proud men and women of America’s local bar bands ever form a labor union.
“Built to Last”: Petty goes under the boardwalk with an early-’60 teen-dance-party groove and the lyric sheet of a middle-age man. Feeling “burned out” and freaked out by the changing world, Petty looks for stability in his lover’s arms. Finally, at track 12, he sings with certainty, using the framework of timeless R&B to suggest this love will last.