Tom Petty has always been a driving force behind classic rock. From the bass-driven ‘Breakdown’ on his 1976 debut with the eponymous Heartbreakers to the beautifully orchestrated slice of American home life, ‘Free Fallin’’ released in 1989, Petty always finds a way to mine musical gold from deep-south, American dust. And that’s exactly what his sixth album with the Heartbreakers, Southern Accents, is about.
A concept album of sorts, Southern Accents focuses on life in the American deep south, singing about cornfields, big dogs and straight-up rebelling against whatever gets in his way. And rightly so; after all, with previous installments in the Petty franchise such as Damn the Torpedoes and Long After Dark (all yielding countless singles) under his belt, why shouldn’t he sing about what made him in the first place?
The record opens with the quintessential Southern anthem, ‘Rebels’, complete with air-punching beat and thundering vocals from Petty himself. “Hey, hey, hey!” Tom shouts as another peal of drums kick in, accompanied by full twelve-string guitar. The fusion of his and Mike Campbell’s natural talent makes for a track laden with shout-out-loud moments, and Petty’s writing makes the song all the more poignant; roaring on about how ‘blue-bellied devils’ destroyed the South and ‘burnt our [Petty’s] cornfields’. The song sounds like the love child of Tom’s southern roots and by-now-concrete classic rock raucousness (Not surprising given he broke his hand during the recording of this song after feeling an initial mix wasn’t ‘right’).
After you’ve come down from the five-minute, musical high of the opening track, Petty hits you with the next masterpiece: ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’. If you asked anyone to write an Alice in Wonderland-esque track featuring David Stewart of Eurythmics on electric sitar, they’d probably laugh in your face. But for master of the arts, Tom Petty, it was only a matter of when. ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ is a testament to the band’s astounding knowledge on how to splice together substance with even more substance. The track opens with Stewart on electric sitar, quickly kicking into Petty and Campbell rocking alongside him before descending into a deep, dark rabbit hole of musical madness and entropy, all wrapped up with lyrics inspired by the enchanting Stevie Nicks.
The title track itself crashes into you next with the thunder of a cloudless sky in late July. ‘Southern Accents’ is a mellow coda flickering with faint moments of orchestration and profound minutes of poignancy. Here, the bones, skin and majestic hair of Petty are peeled back for the world to see. ‘There’s a southern accent, where I come from,’ Tom sings beautifully into the mic, complete with an edge of nostalgia, “the young’un’s call it ‘country’. The Yankees call it dull.”. The track is almost mournful, reflecting on how life used to be and provides an emotional side of Petty sometimes lost among his infectious riffs and outrageous ‘Yeah!’s. It’s easy to see it as belonging to a completely different bloodline from the previous track, but one thing is for sure: ‘Everything is done, with a southern accent, where I come from.’
Other highlights on the album include Petty’s bizarre ‘Spike’, a more southern tune about, well, a dog named ‘Spike’. The word ‘novelty’ springs to mind when it first comes on, but as it bleeds into its musical brother, ‘Dogs on the Run’, it becomes an odyssey of rock and adventure. Petty and his Heartbreakers are ‘just dogs on the run’, and very little Petty wrote since came close to summing them up as accurately.
The last song on ... Accents, ‘The Best of Everything’ is a beautiful, trumpet-fueled piece that tells the story of Petty meeting a girl one wild night and wishing her the best in life. The Best of Everything. It’s an utterly tear-wrenching track and a more than perfect end to a perfect album.
There’s only one word to describe Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Southern Accents, and that’s flawless. Monumental. Unbeatable. Okay, maybe there are a few, but they don’t do this collection of curiously-concocted tracks nearly enough credit. … Accents is a musical lexicon of literature that focuses on what exactly Petty was made of. The fields he ran through as a child, the long, ‘country’ drawls that made his speech, even the very breeze in the air… If you want good old-fashioned rock, you’ll find it in any Heartbreakers record. If you want the story of a great man’s life, on the other hand, look no further than this one.
It’s brutal. It’s beautiful. It’s Tom Petty.