When I first heard the heavy-riffing, 60s-girl-group-checking, and yet ultra-modern sounding 'Holy Commotion', the teaser single for the new Pretenders album, my head filled with questions. Most principally: where has Chrissie Hynde been? How does she still sound this good? And who are these new Pretenders? Pretenders’ latest return was announced in early September, most of the world hearing about it through Stevie Knicks, as she announced the band would be supporting her during the last three months of the year on her mega world arena tour.
It has been eight years since the last Pretenders album, Break Up The Concrete. Released 30 years after the band were formed in 1978, you could be forgiven for thinking it would be their last album, and, in fact, it flew under my radar completely. I certainly wouldn't have expected them to return now with a record that sounds so fresh and, at times, exciting. But then I'd probably be falling into a trap many before me have succumb to: underestimating Chrissie Hynde. She has one of the most enduring, most instantly recognisable voices in rock history and writes razor sharp lyrics to boot.
Opening and title track 'Alone' is a case in point. Chrissie's tone is conversational, and yet cool as fuck throughout, as she sing-speaks about going to a graveyard to be on her own, smoke and practise her autograph. She seems to somehow be sending herself up with this irreverent wit, whilst simultaneously being a perfect representation of who we expect her to be. All the greatest rock stars are, at least at some point in their careers, caricatures, and Chrissie Hynde is one who has endured, everything you expect her to be remains intact and vibrant. It’s so easy to forget she’s 65 years old. ‘Alone’ is driven along by gritty guitars and a boogie woogie piano groove in the verses that makes it sound like Warren Zevon is about to howl, “Awooo” and this is actually going to be ‘Werewolves Of London’. Hynde casually closes the song in style.
“I like being on my own
What are you gonna do about it, huh?
Absolutely fuck all”.
Another principle factor in this reformation has to be producer and Black Keys man Dan Aeurbach, who actually shares a hometown with Hynde in Akron, Ohio; although you’d be forgiven for thinking Chrissie came out of New York City by way of London. The question of ‘who’ the Pretender are now is answered in the official press release for the album in an enigmatically reassuring style, in stating that Chrissie is backed on the album by “real people playing real instruments”. That’s the sound we hear throughout the record, some great players stomping their way back and forth through the great American songbook in a way that sounds simultaneously up-to-date and like some great forgotten moment between the 60s and 70s. ‘Roadie Man’, for example, sounds like it could be The Band with some extra layers of guitar. Apparently this is a song Chrissie had played to Elvis Costello years ago, which he’d pushed for inclusion on the album. As resistant to hyperbole as ever Chrissie recently denied this on the BBC One Show, saying she’d have to tell Elvis she’d finally recorded It. On the same show she also sweeps away any queries about who the Pretenders are, it’s just a name. As the only consistent member of the band it’s ultimately the sound and attitude of a record that decides if that collection of songs is going to be a Pretenders album, and this is most certainly a Pretenders album.
Chrissie Hynde’s song-writing sounds at the top of its game to me, backed by a great set of session players that Aeurbach has at his disposal, it’s live and lively throughout. Although, while Alone begins with all guns blazing, it gently dips its way towards the reflective and melancholic as it progresses through the track-list exploring the theme of the title. The proud defiance of ‘Alone’ gives way to waiting for love (‘Gotta Wait’, ‘One More Day’), and tracks that accept it’s not going to work out (‘Never Be Together’, ‘The Man You Are’). But Hynde never loses her confidence or independence, even when you hit the lows of a track like ‘I Hate Myself’, she uses confessional cowboy-blues to list her mistakes and regrets without ever surrendering her defiance. The album closes with ‘Death Is Not Enough’ a solemn ballad, drenched in mournful pedal steel and dripping in romance – love enduring after a death that, presumably, leaves Hynde alone. But Hynde staunchly avoids drifting into cliché, even with the rock-history lesson on display throughout the album; she manages to keep things interesting and clever with unique passages popping up amongst the comforting familiarity of the overall sound.
It’s interesting that they’ve chosen to stick ‘Holy Commotion’ on the end of the album, listed as a ‘bonus track’ (there’s a near thirty seconds of silence at the end of ‘Death Is Not Enough’ to enforce the seperation). With its arpeggio synth, big production percussion, and hooky backing vocals it’s arguably the most modern sounding track on the album, definitely souped up for maximum impact, but in so doing it sticks out like a sore thumb (tellingly the version they played on Jools Holland the other day was far faster and more rock oriented than the recording). Thematically as well it strays a little from the album – it’s about love and connection in spite, or in antidote to the “rape, torture and mutilation” of the modern world. It’s optimistic, it’s hopeful and it’s an earworm par-excellence with the potential to become one of Hynde’s most memorable singles, right up there with her ‘94 hit, ‘I’ll Stand By You’. To set it aside, rather than attempt to build the album around it, says a lot to me. For all this surprise blooming of energy, so late in her career, Hynde is still of her-era: preferring authenticity and a bold artistic statement to a dogged pursuit of commercial success. That’s not to say this album is anti-commercial by any means. In fact we’ve seen time and time again that those who avoid the big tell-all PR campaigns and enormous lead-times of typical pop promotions can end up getting even more love from the public, for reminding us that we like a little mystery in our lives. This album is a real grower, classic and clever, in defiance of her age it feels like it could well be the beginning of a new era of Pretenders – I, for one, certainly hope so!