Full Moon Fever is the first solo album by Tom Petty, though it features contributions from members of his backing band the Heartbreakers, notably Mike Campbell, along with Roy Orbison and George Harrison - who would later join Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan in the Traveling Wilburys. The record shows Petty exploring his musical roots with nods to his influences. The songwriting is mainly collaborations between Petty and Lynne, who was also a producer on the album. The album became a commercial and critical success peaking at Number 3 on the Billboard 200 and being certified 5× platinum in the United States and 6× platinum in Canada.
Petty had just finished a Heartbreakers tour behind the album Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) when he decided to record a solo album without the Heartbreakers (Similar to the arrangement between Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at the time). This stirred some controversy among members of the Heartbreakers, although all but drummer Stan Lynch contributed to the album. The recording process was a low-key affair, with many of Petty's friends contributing, including the members of the Traveling Wilburys, minus Bob Dylan. Recorded mainly in the relaxed atmosphere of Mike Campbell's garage studio, Petty would later say it was the most enjoyable record he had ever worked on. According to Rolling Stone, it was these sessions that led to the formation of the Travelling Wilburys; recording of Full Moon Fever was actually interrupted to allow time for recording of the first Wilbury's album. A few songs were recorded during the sessions that did not make Full Moon Fever; "Down the Line" and "Don't Treat Me Like A Stranger" were among them, released as b-sides. "Traveling" and "Waiting for Tonight" were released on Playback, with the former featuring all the Heartbreakers including Stan Lynch, and the latter featuring The Bangles. During the sessions, Petty wrote "Indiana Girl," an early draft of what would eventually become "Mary Jane's Last Dance". When playing the songs live, initially, Benmont Tench and Howie Epstein weren't happy about it. Stan Lynch hated it right up until his departure from the band, saying he felt he was in a cover band.
The album is noted for being heavily influenced by Jeff Lynne, resulting in a cleaner and glossier version of the Heartbreakers roots rock from previous albums. Lynne incorporated layers of keyboards and backing vocals, giving it a Beatlesque feel. The songs show Petty paying dues to his influences with a Byrds cover ("I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better") and a nod to Del Shannon in "Runnin' Down a Dream." Other songs, such as "Free Fallin'", show Petty addressing nostalgia on his rise to fame.
The album, which became Petty's commercial peak as an artist, was helped by favorable critical reviews and three hit singles. The album was released on April 24, 1989 and rose to eventually peak at #3 on the Billboard 200 and #8 in the UK. Five singles were released from the album; two hit the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and three topped the Mainstream Rock chart. The RIAA certified Full Moon Fever 5x platinum on October 5, 2000 and the CRIA certified it 6x platinum on September 18, 1991.
Critical praise was generally high, with Allmusic giving the album 4 and a half stars, admiring the craft of the album and rivaling it with the Heartbreakers' Damn the Torpedoes. This review notes there are no weak tracks on the album, calling it a "minor masterpiece." The original Rolling Stone review compared the album favorably to the Traveling Wilburys' first album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, saying it has the "same restless charm," but commenting that the album, at times, seems "sprawling." The review claims the album is "another rewarding, low-key side project for Petty," giving it three and a half stars out of five. A later Rolling Stone biographer claims Full Moon Fever was a "masterful solo album." It was ranked #92 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 best albums of the 1980s.
The album contains a hidden track at the end of track 5 ("Runnin' Down a Dream"). The interlude, which is referred to in the album credits as "Attention CD Listeners", features a brief tongue-in-cheek monologue by Petty, over a background of barnyard noises made by Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Del Shannon. The hidden track is not provided on vinyl pressings.