Petty had decided to record a solo album to explore some of his musical roots, and to be able to bring in some of his peers to perform on the album. Perhaps most notably was Jeff Lynne, the primary force behind the “Electric Lights Orchestra”, and a fellow member of the supergroup “The Traveling Wilburys”. Lynne produced “Full Moon Fever”, and Petty thought so much of his work that he was brought in to produce “Into the Great Wide Open” as well. Lynne was also co-wrote most of the songs from the album with Petty, giving the album a similar feel to “Full Moon Fever”. Even though they were technically performed by two different acts, the comparisons, and expectations, were inevitable. Though perhaps they didn’t make an album that separated itself from Petty’s, they did make an excellent, and successful, album.
The first song on the album was the first single to be released, “Learning to Fly”. It was one of the band’s biggest singles ever, spending six weeks as the number one song on the mainstream rock charts. It features some of the best aspects of a Heartbreakers song: Petty’s acoustic guitar leading into Stan Lynch’s crashing drums and Mike Campbell’s lead guitars. Howie Epstein plays bass and sings backing vocals while Benmont Tench takes the keyboards. Thematically, the song does what several songs on the album do, tells of the start of a journey, someone looking to the future, not really knowing what lies ahead.
The title song, “Into the Great Wide Open”, shares a similar theme. This one tells the story of Eddie and his girlfriend, moving to Hollywood to try to break into the music business, going from carefree kids with lots of potential, to finding out it wasn’t so easy, and wondering what the future would hold. “Out in the Cold”, which topped the mainstream rock charts for two weeks, had an accompanying video featuring Johnny Depp as a teenager moving to Los Angeles to be a rockstar, continuing the theme.
The Heartbreakers are at their best with pure rock songs that have driving rhythms and strong guitar riffs. The best pure rock song on the album is “Makin’ Some Noise”, which lives up to the title. It’s the song that most hearkens back to previous Heartbreakers albums; the guitars aren’t as clean and polished as they are on the rest of the album, which is a good thing for a song like this. The other song that comes to mind in this vein is “All Or Nothing”, which not coincidentally shares the same writing team as “Makin’ Some Noise”, being Petty, Campbell & Lynne. This one is a bit more polished sounding, likely due to Lynne’s influence, but is also a good in-your-face rock song.
Overall, this is an excellent album. It does feel more like “Full Moon Fever” than it a Heartbreakers album, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The album has a polish that doesn’t always suit the band; drummer Stan Lynch would leave the band a few years after this album largely due to resentment of Petty bringing his solo songs into their concert sets, and for bringing in Lynne and allowing him more control over the band’s direction than the existing members. But the writing here is excellent, and the musicianship is first class, as always. Petty and the Heartbreakers can truly rock, and their work here is proof.