Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Into The Great Wide Open
Released July 2nd, 1991 on MCA Records
Produced by Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Mike Campbell
Peaked at #13 U.S., #3 U.K.
“Learning To Fly” (#28 U.S., #46 U.K.)
“Into The Great Wide Open” (#92 U.S.)
“Out In The Cold” (#1 U.S. Rock)
“Too Good To Be True” (#34 U.K.)
“Kings Highway” (#4 U.S. Rock)
“Makin’ Some Noise” (#30 U.S. Rock)
There was a time, decades ago, when it was cool to make breezy rock ‘n’ roll music about the American heartland. You could be Bruce Springsteen or John “Cougar” Mellencamp or Bob Seger or whomever and you could sing about suckin’ down chili dogs at the Taste-E-Freeze and people would be like “yeah, this is great, give me some more of this rock ‘n’ roll about living in a small town and fucking your cheerleader girlfriend in the back of your dad’s car.” Tastes change, of course; this is the great truth of the world, that what people like today will seem quaint and out of step twenty years down the road. Tom Petty didn’t seem to have much of an issue, though. Whether it was with the Heartbreakers or on his own, he could spin out his own brand of heartland rock and people would unironically vibe with it, even if the kids were way more into the Pixies than they were the Silver Bullet Band by the Nineties. Even as dyed-in-the-wool grunge kids whose first band was basically a Nirvana cover band we kept a copy of Full Moon Fever close by. Maybe it was a country thing. Who knows.
Into The Great Wide Open was the last great Heartbreakers album; every album they released afterwards would just retread the same sound and chart ever-higher, until their last album, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, hit #1 on the Billboard 200. The sound that propelled them slowly to the top of the charts is at its peak here: open, expansive guitar sound, mid-tempo agreeable grooves, and Petty’s whiskey-smooth voice. It was the same sound he had done on Full Moon Fever (a Heartbreakers album in all but name) and it was the most successful sound they’d managed to date. They’d been a tougher, tighter band back in the day – southern, stoned grooves in the vein of peak Rolling Stones – but the acoustic chug-alongs that characterized everything they did from the late 80s onward proved to be the money shot. The first three songs on here are classics in that style – driving music that gets your blood up, as my dad once said when 7 year-old me asked why the radio played something as hard-charging as “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” “Learning To Fly” is a staple on rock radio; “King’s Highway” gets you rolling down the highway; Staples radio played so much of the title track that it seems like it might be permanently welded into my head. The rest of it is fine. “All Or Nothin'” and “Makin’ Some Noise’ conjure up that old Heartbreakers electric strut, and “Out In The Cold” sounds like it could have stepped out of the sessions for Damn The Torpedos.
It’s been four years since Tom Petty died and I still have a hard time believing it. Like Prince and Bowie, he just seemed like he would live forever, fated to tour the Earth forever. Instead he died of an adverse mixture of pain medication. He’d had problems with drugs before – opiates, in the three years following a painful divorce in 1996 – but his death revealed the high cost he was paying to continue his life as a touring musician. When he passed he’d been suffering from a busted hip – that had been diagnosed as even more busted on the day he died – as well as bad knees and emphysema. On “Makin’ Some Noise” he sang “I thought, “Maybe I can make it if I never give in / I been down before, I ain’t goin’ down again.”” Eventually it catches up with you, though. At least he got to see a #1 record in his lifetime, even if it took until his mid-60s in the last few years of his life.