Abraham Lincoln once said (to a delegation from the National Union League who were urging him to be their presidential candidate) that, “It is never wise to swap horses in mid-stream”. After the popular breakthrough that his solo album made in 1989, Tom Petty clearly took that adage to heart when it came time to make his first album back with the Heartbreakers in 1991.
Upon first listen, each and every one of the twelve songs that make up the album are fantastic and sound as though they could have been recorded in the same sessions which yielded Full Moon Fever – same energy, same poppy focus, same crew on both sides of the mixing board. (Into The Great Wide Open marked only the second occasion since 1979 which didn’t feature Jimmy Iovene on the mixing board – the first was Full Moon Fever and, like that album, Into The Great Wide Open featured ELO alumnus Jeff Lynn producing.) And the results were the same as well. That isn’t a bad thing; while the album didn’t yield as many singles as Full Moon Fever had (two to FMF‘s five), the album plays flawlessly, especially when pressed into vinyl as this reissue is.
As soon as “Learning To Fly” opens the A-side of Into The Great Wide Open, it may be possible to hear a satisfied sigh escape the mouths of all of those within earshot. “There’s Rickenbacker guitar! There’s Howie Epstein’s thick and luscious bass tone, and this complimentary back-up vocals! Listen close – there’s Mike Campbell’s guitar solo! There’s Benmont Tench’s understated but inimitable keyboards and Stan Lynch’s drums!” To This day, a quarter of a century later, “Learning To Fly” feels like a homecoming for both the band and for fans, and it is good.
With appetites whetted by “Learning To Fly,” the Heartbreakers elect to give people precisely what they want (more of that kind of magic) right away. Track two, “King’s Highway,” does precisely that, and keeps the energy flowing smoothly. There, while there’s no denying that the band is re-covering ground they’ve done before (songs about travel had long been a Petty staple by then) the fresher outlook on it combined with Petty’s further refined pop energy really change the overall impression that the song leaves. The easiest way to describe it is like seeing a road-worn sedan (complete with paint faded innumerable hours in the sun) and comparing it to a freshly waxed performance muscle car; the older form is time-tested and run hard, but the new one runs sleeker and faster and feels a little slipperier as it plays through.
Because “King’s Highway” has already left listeners ready to go, they’ll have no trouble at all bombing through the rest of the side. The album’s title track contrasts a descending, mid-tempo progression through the verses with a beautiful and uplifting chorus which just has “singalong” written all over it while “The Dark Of The Sun” re-purposes Lynyrd Skynyrd licks to fantastic “deep cut” effect – particularly when it’s joined as it is with bright, hopeful lyrics about standing together against the odds. The side closes with the surprisingly appointed, classic rock number, “All Or Nothin’.” There, Petty just seethes through each verse and howls through each chorus and arrives at a completely unique performance for his catalogue; the kind of power expressed echoes such wracked work as that of John Lennon (without The Beatles) and is a true rarity for Petty. That rarity is what will have listeners glued to their turntables and ready to flip the plate over in order to resume the running as soon as the song (and side, by extension) runs out.
As was customary for releases which first came out on CD, the B-side of this vinyl reissue of Into The Great Wide Open plays well but doesn’t exactly begin with the right kind of bang. Those who know the music already know that “For All The Wrong Reasons” is the definition of a really good album cut, but it’s not necessarily the best place to start either side of an LP. There, Stan Lynch’s drums take on an almost operatic tone (I’m not sure, but what is presumably a floor tom drum sounds as big as a timpani) and the theme of the song (hard times and, as the first lyric of the song attests, it “blew in on a cold wind and came without warning”) is just the wrong place to start for this running.
Happily, it recovers quickly with the passive disillusionment of “Too Good To Be True” and the balls-out rocker which actually deserved to be a single given the tenor of rock radio at the time, “Out In The Cold.” Again, “Out In The Cold” just rips through an angry and frustrated turn which still doesn’t play much like what most would expect from the Heartbreakers. Petty has seldom actively said that he’s done and gone from a relationship in any lyric sheet – certainly not this actively or clearly, anyway), but that change proves not to be at all unwelcome in this running. Particularly on this reissue, the six-per-side structure doesn’t allow any cut to be buried too deeply which makes it very easy to pick up on what they may have previously overlooked.
In much the same fashion as that of “Out In The Cold,” listeners may find some added joy in uncovering the oft-overlooked gem “Makin’ Some Noise.” Now, really, “Makin’ Some Noise” wears everything it is on its face: it is a rock song about being in a rock band and writing rock songs. It is 100% fun in much the same way “Summertime Blues,” “We’re An American Band” and “Theme From a NOFX Album” are though and, within the context of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ catalogue (which focused more on intangible concepts like the desire for spiritual freedom and the joy and separation associated with travel), “Makin’ Some Noise” stood as pretty unique and exciting. The song’s sound is pretty all-out and doesn’t try to hold anything back which, again, is something of a rarity for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that novelty proves to be wildly intoxicating.
Taking the album as a whole – with all twelve songs together as a set – it’s easy to see that Into The Great Wide Open embodies the aforementioned Abraham Lincoln quote to a proverbial T. Playing them back to back, it’s clear that Into The Great Wide Open complements Full Moon Fever flawlessly and that’s great but, even better, the album is also able to stand on its own and give listeners a special, unbelievably good experience. This album has not been one to be missed since it was first released in 1991, and it remains so with this new vinyl reissue.