Some albums can have a very limited tonal palette and still manage to convey emotions with such vividness and diversity that you can but be amazed at the level of craftsmanship displayed by their composers. “Into The Great Wide Open” is an album that certainly brings that to mind. Produced by Jeff Lynne, it was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers eight album overall, and the last they would release for MCA Records.
The year was 1991, and the partnership with Lynne made a lot of sense – not only did Tom and Jeff get along like a house on fire, Lynne had helmed the praiseworthy “Full Moon Fever” just three years before.
In terms of sound, “Into The Great Wide Open” recalls not only Petty’s first solo album but also The Traveling Wilburys’ entire oeuvre with its mix of contemporary motifs and a shiny roots rock feel. That was an inevitable point of comparison, and one of the main criticisms leveled at the album – that it was nothing but “Full Moon Fever 2”,and that the production undermined the message.
The first part of that argument did hold its own, and Petty knew as much (this was the last album Lynne produced for him). But I find the second part patently untrue. Petty did never touch upon his endemic themes with such accuracy, vitality and grace.
The first single was to top the Mainstream Rock Charts for six weeks. Named “Learning To Fly”, it has become one of Petty’s trademark songs, and the one song of his that everybody knows down where I live (Uruguay). That is a good thing – the song is one of the catchiest within his repertoire. And thematically, it has all the basic ingredients that Petty is known to combine at his most emblematic- a lyric where hopelessness is turned in its head by the mere resolution of the protagonist to hold onto something that he actually knows is not there. But it will be there one day. Until that day comes, it is a matter of going up and down.
And several songs showcase a development in Petty’s typical cast of characters that one can help but feel, “At last, it all comes full circle”. I am speaking about “King’s Highway”, where the promise of a better day becomes engraved in time by the courage of the narrator to believe the force of his will. And the song “Two Gunslingers” has two gunfighters (IE, two slaves to a brutal form of entertainment) breaking out of their given roles, with one of them pronouncing “I’m takin’ control of my life” so many times that what ends up mattering is the life that is begotten, and not the onslaught that we (as the listeners) know had preceded that moment.
And “You And I Will Meet Again” is as uplifting as the title implies. It definitely anticipates songs like “A Higher Place” and “Time To Move On” from “Wildflowers” – songs where the bad does exists, but never in enough quantities to drown the joy and the wonder of being alive.
In a certain sense, Petty always offers songs like these on his albums. But this time around, they get to me like they have never done before. I don’t know if it is the production, combined with the gentler sound. It might be – there is no aggressiveness, but rather a calm resolve. That is, there is not the outburst one associates with youth but the meditation one links to maturity. And for me, it absolutely works.
Such a dynamic is accentuated by the presence of rauchy songs that deal with disillusion like the two tracks penned by Petty and Campbell, “All Or Nothing” and “Makin’ Some Noise”. The latter tells of the hopes for a success story that we fully know is not happening anytime, and a connected tale is studied on the title track. It deals with a one-hit wonder named Eddie, and the video was a staple of early MTV.
What I love best about the song is that it is just like one of these plays by Ibsen – the drama already existed when the curtain went up, and the situation was not elucidated at the end. You just watched a bit in the middle. What comes next (and came before) is left to your imagination.
Finally, I have to mention the other chart topper produced by the album (“Out In The Cold”, penned by Petty on his own and even more of a head-banger than the tunes he wrote with Campbell) and “All The Wrong Reasons” (a song that stands out because of the abundant backup supplied by Roger McGuinn).
From all of the above, you can tell that this is an album that truly communicates a lot to me. “Full Moon Fever” is a better album. Yet, “Into The Great Wide Open” is not a lesser work in any sense. “Full Moon Fever” has gone down as Tom Petty’s main artistic achievement. I can’t disagree with that. Not at all. But if I have to apply a tag to “Into The Great Wide Open”, I would name it Petty’s album that gives me an unequivocal sense of the possibilities that life holds. And I am giving it full marks based on that.