This is more than your average rock & roll soundtrack album. A cohesive set of newly written songs with only minimal film-score padding, She’s the One — the musical complement to the new movie by Edward Burns (the writer-director-star of The Brothers Mc-Mullen) — is a legitimate follow-up to Petty’s last solo album, Wildflowers. Credited to Petty and his stalwart group the Heartbreakers, it is a fine mix of brainy pop and brawny rock that finds Petty synthesizing rather than compartmentalizing these two aspects of his musical persona.
She’s the One also serves to remind how deceptively effortless good songwriting can be. A chiming, Byrds-trademark 12-string guitar decorates “Walls (Circus),” an evocation of lost California-sunshine innocence heightened by the playfully syncopated backing vocals of Lindsey Buckingham (harking back to his own Cali-pop heyday with Fleetwood Mac). Like a vintage Beach Boys single, the song fades at the end with the golden grandeur of a Pacific Coast sunset. On the darker side, Petty recalls the electrified frustration of Damn the Torpedoes in “Grew Up Fast” (“We grew up smashed/And we grew up alone”), then pursues the misfit theme with even more vigor in “Zero From Outer Space,” a madcap garage rocker complete with cheesy harmonica and frantic, rattling tambourine. The close-harmony vocals and crunchy guitar in “Climb That Hill,” co-written with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, give the song a palpable air of tenseness and isolation, a la Neil Young’s “The Loner.” Fortunately, there is comic relief in Petty’s choice of cover versions, the sardonic kiss-off songs “Change the Locks,” by Lucinda Williams, and Beck’s “Asshole.”
But amid the impolite, love-gone-wrong songs, and despite the narrative obligations that go with soundtrack music, Petty keeps returning to what seems to be his broader theme for the album — an affection for California and its rich pop heritage, and the uneasy sense that both are in trouble. In “Hung Up and Overdue,” the record’s big production piece, he applies a subtle coat of neopsychedelic gloss to a languid melody and haiku-style lyrics that convey an underlying ennui: “We’re overdue for a dream come true/ Long time, nothing new.” With harmony vocals by Carl Wilson and a direct lyric quote from an old Beach Boys song, Petty’s point is hard to miss. He still believes in the California dream and, in his music, is determined to do his best to keep it alive.