Record Roundup: Petty still honest but album flawed
Review by John Griffin
The Montreal Gazette — Thursday, April 4, 1985
Tom Petty punched his hand through a wall during a recording session last year. His new LP Southern Accents (MCA) sounds like the accident must have hurt a lot.
This album has been years in the making, since 1982’s Long After Dark, in fact, and it sounds fussed over, like Petty spent so long with the project he just couldn’t hear it any more. As a result, what could have been a brilliant album is less than that. Instead, it’s deeply flawed, very pained, and sad. Sort of like the America Petty knows so well.
The record is, of course, well worth hearing because Tom Petty — even a confused Tom Petty — is still one of the few authentic chroniclers of American life in the rock ‘n’ roll mainstream, and also because The Heartbreakers, Petty’s boys, are a great rock ‘n’ roll band.
Southern Accents covers a lot of territory, stylisically speaking. Dave Stewart from Eurythmics sits in on the writing, production and performing credits on three tracks and his cool ’80’s studio values make weird bedmates for a down-home boy like Petty. The casual slouch of It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me works despite the obstacles though, because Petty’s lyrics are more focused and more poignant than ever. “We got a man on the moon (it ain’t nothin’ to me),” he sings in a voice as pinched as Dylan’s. “But when you dance I can go right with you.”
Better are the tracks Petty composed on his lonesome. Rebels is classic anthem material, a tribute to his Florida roots, to history and the doomed revel cause, and the the Byrds, the Band and the Brits who informed his music in the first place. Likewise the title track, and the self-explanatory Mary’s New Car, an apparent throw away, that, like Zen, says more with less.
Finest of all, despite cluttered, messy co-production by ex-Band leader Robbie Robertson is The Best Of Everything, a ballad piece of busted hopes and burnt-up dreams that wraps up the whole business of growing up in two sorrowful verses. And it’s nice to hear Richard Manuel sing such sweet harmony to Petty’s Randy Newman-ish lead.
There you have it. Southern Accents is frustrating — you have the feeling you could have produced this one better than them. But it’s also an honest work. No, no one can ever accuse Tom Petty of anything less than honesty.