Throughout music history, many albums have been made which are said to be conflicted due to the tensions apparent within the band coming out in the music. Some of those albums turn out to be phenomenal – there was conflict brewing in Nirvana and it came out in In Utero and it was great. The same was the case with End of the Century by The Ramones, Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements and Zen Arcade by Husker Du. But Southern Accents proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are not the kind of band who can “just make it work.”
As has been famously recounted by several members of the band several times over the years, everyone had a different idea when it came time to make Southern Accents (“It will be a concept album!” “I want to do some co-writing with other people again!” “I want to make a bigger and more ambitious sound!”), and only a few of them proved to actually line up.As they had already proven, The Heartbreakers were (and remain) at their best when they just aimed to be themselves and gave listeners work which expressed that kind of candor and honesty. But that proved not to be the engine which drives Southern Accents. Even listening to it now – decades after the album’s release – no listener can deny that the album sounds as though it’s being pulled in several directions at once.
While it might quickly get confused, listeners may still be surprised and excited as “Rebels” opens the A-side. Right off, no one listening will be able to deny that Petty and the band are flaunting some fresh (distinctly “eighties”) inspiration as Petty, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Howie Epstein and guitarist Mike Campbell wrap some super-tight sonic shrink wrap around their arrangement and place it solidly atop what might be simplest and most repetitive drum pattern that Stan Lynch would commit to tape for the Heartbreakers. And (if this was your first exposure to the band), it’s catchy as hell! While there’s no question that older fans may have found this start a hard sell, it’s entirely possible that younger listeners who were checking the band out for the first time with this album got hooked by this song.
Following the beginning made by “Rebels,” Southern Accents gets even further from the Heartbreakers’ norm as “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” tries out some slap bass, horns (arranged by Jack Nitsche) and guitar tones (but not performances) reminiscent of early Van Halen. There too, Petty puts on a fairly annoyed stance as he begins reciting some of the bigger news headlines of the day and punctuating them with the title lyric coupled with a desire to dance all night. Again – this is all about as far as anyone had ever expected to find Tom Petty and his band to be from their roots and did turn at least a few listeners off of the album because it was just too far from what they expected of the group. It might not have knocked them out of the band’s fan club, but many simply turned away from this album. It’s entirely possible that the same phenomenon will occur with those who check out this reissue.
Of course, keeping up with continuity, the B-side begins with more horns and the same kind of weak presentation from which the album’s A-side suffered in the form of (the ironically entitled) “Make It Better,” but the side does begin to show signs of life with the comparatively stripped down and moody rocker, “Spike.” There, the whole band gets back to basics and just simmers and seethes its way through a series of catcalls and come-ons which sound like Petty is looking for a fight set to a soulful and bluesy progression which is definitely in the Heartbreakers’ home space.
After having already battled through one side of abysmally written and produced material, “Spike” feels more delightful and refreshing than it is likely meant to, but it holds up as “Dogs on the Run” picks up the lede it leaves and plays through a genuine Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers classic which also finds a way to play with horns. The pairing of those two songs both feels and sounds great to this day and really are the saving grace for Southern Accents thirty-five years later.
Looking at it now and taking all its flaws and fortunes into account, it’s very easy to see how very much “of its moment” Southern Accents really was. In 1985, the album didn’t do too badly (it yielded three singles and topped out at Number 7 on the Billboard 200 chart) but seeing where they’d been prior to this release as well as the heights to which they’d eventually ascend following Southern Accents, it becomes increasingly difficult to really find much to get excited about. Now thirty-two years on, listeners will likely see Southern Accents as a great curiosity which leaves a couple of great songs adrift with a bunch of ambitious ideas, only partially realized. It’s not much, but it could be conversation fodder among fans who would love to see the album get some due.