Southern Accents

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

MCA, 1985

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Why, ’80s, why?

The sessions for Southern Accents were troubled from the start, it’s true; after the arc of their first four albums marked a steady ascension, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers first stumbled with 1982’s Long After Dark, an album tainted by relatively uninspired songwriting and weak production. Southern Accents began as an attempt to bounce back from that creative funk, a concept album attempting to present life in the South in a semi-mythic narrative frame similar to the one Springsteen had employed on Born To Run. But a few songs in, the sessions quickly bogged down again. In the midst of this extended bout of creative frustration—which would eventually include Petty breaking his hand punching a wall—he crossed paths on the LA party scene with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, and between the grooves of this record you can almost hear Petty say “Fuck it… he can’t possibly make things worse.”

And indeed, Stewart’s injection into the Heartbreakers’ studio environment shook things up considerably, resulting in three tracks where he receives co-writing and co-producing credits, songs full of experimentation as the group dabbles in hardcore rhythm and blues, adding horn sections and female background vocals and even sitar to the otherwise rather droning, dour “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the album’s one notable single.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The first big problem should be evident from the above: you really have two different albums here, musically, that have been forced by circumstance into awkward co-existence. But that’s not the real dagger to the heart; that role falls the combination of weak songwriting and some of the most godawful 1980s production ever to desecrate a rock and roll record.

Every production flaw you began to hear on Long After Dark—spiky, trebly, over-compressed production and mix; cold, mechanical-sounding synths; thin, metallic-sounding drums—is magnified on Southern Accents. It’s hard to make a great rock album when your snare drum sounds like someone hitting a stack of wet tin foil.

As for the songs, well.

The “Southern suite” varies wildly in quality. Leadoff track “Rebels” offers a sturdy hook, sharp, jangly guitars, and a distinct point of view, all Petty staples. But “Southern Accents” might be the most egregious musical swipe of Petty’s career, with faux-cinematic music that sounds like a Born To Run outtake and repeated Springsteenisms, right down to the wordless cries in fourth minute. This tendency is repeated on the ersatz-Springsteen clunker “Mary’s New Car,” but even that doesn’t approach the genuinely awful “Spike,” a swampy blues throwaway that should have stayed on the trash heap.

For all their efforts at shaking things up, the Stewart tracks are just as uneven. The intense, exotic “Don’t Come Around Here No More” has a nice snap to it, though it still might have sunk like a stone without the inspired “Mad Hatter” video that earned it heavy rotation on MTV. “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” has its moments, a frothy r&b number with a snazzy horn section—but “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” is a ludicrous misfire, a lyrical word salad with an equally incoherent Earth Wind and Fire-meets-The Byrds arrangement.

In a career studded with memorable songs populating good-to-great albums, Southern Accents is the most deeply and fundamentally flawed studio collection Petty ever released. Just four years after achieving this nadir, he would release one of the best albums of his career in Full Moon Fever. That’s rock and roll for you.

Rating: C-

User Rating: B


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