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By Anthony DeCurtis
Herald Statesman — Sunday, April 21, 1985
On “Southern Accents,” his first album release since 1982, Tom Petty reaches back to his Florida roots to forge a cycle of songs that is rigorously old-fashioned and earnestly contemporary. While most successful LPs these days are collections of four or five potential hit singles and a equal amount of competent, high-gloss filler, “Southern Accents” (MCA) is a thematically unified meditation on the American South — its self-destructive parochialism and its nourishing sense of tradition.
“We got our own way of living, but everything gets done/With a southern accent, where I come from,” Petty croons on the album’s deeply affecting title track. The quiet regional dignity of those lines contrasts sharply with the hell-bent cry of red-neck doom that constitutes the lyrical hook of “Rebels,” the record’s opening cut: “With one foot in the grave and one foot on the pedal, I was born to rebel.” Both visions are dramatically presented and left to stand on their own terms — the listener is left to discern the full picture of a region’s pride and narrowness, and the eventual fates of both types of characters.
But if Petty’s thematic comprehensiveness and literary ambition are throwbacks to the concept-album idea prevalent in the late ’60s, the California-based singer also has sought to update his sound on this LP. Known for their commitment to hard-hitting guitar-based rock, as evidenced on albums like “Hard Promises” and “Damn the Torpedoes,” Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, incorporate strings, horns, electronic voice treatments and more emphatic drum tracks on “Southern Accents.” To achieve their modernizations, Petty brought in Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, who co-wrote and helped produce three songs. The droning, psychedelic single, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which uses a sitar, is one of the tunes Stewart worked on.
Not all of these innovations are integrated into the songs in a completely satisfying way, and many die-hard Petty fans have expressed initial objections to their hero’s move away from rock purity. But “Southern Accents” assumes a worthy place beside the numerous other LPs that have taken America as their focus in one way or another in the past few years. Like the best of these records — Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Uh-huh” — “Southern Accents” explores its vast subject with a thoughtful, critical affection. Avoiding both mindless chauvinism and easy, enlightened cliches, “Southern Accents” restores Petty and the Heartbreakers to their prominence and makes their summer tour an extremely welcome prospect.
That tour is scheduled to begin in late May. Reports indicate that Petty, who broke his hand when he put his fist through a studio wall last year, is able to play guitar again to a limited degree and should be restored to full powers by the tour’s start.