Whether you are watching a TV ad, playing a Springsteen record or listening to Ronald Reagan, America's most seductive commodity these days seems to be itself -- especially regional culture and the working class. And Tom Petty's first album in three years, "Southern Accents" (MCA-5486), tries desperately to jump on the bandwagon of glowing cultural affirmation. Just check out the album cover, a reproduction of Winslow Homer's autumnal painting of a worker in a wheat field.
When Petty and his Heartbreakers emerged in 1976, their rocking Stones-Byrds synthesis provided a solid mainstream alternative to the incipient punk and new wave revolt. Petty may have just been another all-American boy singing about all-American girls, but his rock classicism was passionate, as well as melodic and hard-nosed. His problem over the next five years -- and the same conundrum that every roots rocker, including Springsteen, has faced -- was how to make the music grow up and fit the times.
Petty's three-year recording hiatus dramatizes this problem and, unfortunately, his attempt to resolve it on "Southern Accents" sounds musically clumsy and thematically hokey. The heart of the album is Petty's two tributes to the South and his three collaborations with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. An Englishman may seem an odd partner when searching for southern accents, but Stewart is also a Byrds fan, a soul music adept and a proven success with electronic dance tracks. However, the three songs Stewart wrote and produced with Petty are ungainly musical fusions in which Petty comes off sounding like a redneck lost in a video dance club. On "It Ain't Nothin' to Me," Petty's electronically processed vocals and Stewart's horn-driven funk are incongruously pitted against one of Petty's typical, big-guitar choruses. His current single, "Don't Come Around Here No More," fares no better. Here, Stewart creates an airy, Eurythmics-like synthesizer track to support Petty's whining vocals and his own whining sitar.
Both "Rebels" and "Southern Accents" attempt the kind of mythic transformation of the redneck ethos that Springsteen offers blue-collar culture. But Petty's romanticizing in "Rebels" -- "With one foot in the grave/ and one foot on the pedal/ I was born a rebel" -- sounds more like caricature, as do his strangled, Dylanesque vocals.
The title cut is another unconvincing exercise in rebel pride. With Mike Campbell's dobro striking notes of rural authenticity, Jack Nitzsche's sentimental string arrangement attempts in vain to add poignance to Petty's tale of an itinerant worker.
Petty does better when he forgets about the South and the dance clubs and sings about things true to his Los Angeles rock star life style, namely cars and girls. "Mary's New Car" is a simple, taunting nursery rhyme that, in a few brief lyrics, effectively evokes the car as a symbol of power, beauty and freedom. Probably the album's finest cut, "The Best of Everything," is a dramatic ballad in which Petty finally gets his exaggerated nasal delivery under enough control to deliver a heartfelt goodbye to an old flame.
There's no doubt that by abandoning the familiar musical streets he cruised so well in the past the Tom Petty of "Southern Accents" is a little lost. His confusion is underscored by his use of five different producers, as well as synthesizers, horns, strings, soul choruses, cellos and sitars.
By straining back for rural roots and forward for dance hits, neither of which are his natural property, Tom Petty has made the most awkward and unsatisfying album of his career.