By Eleni P. Austin
“We don’t have to get fat, we don’t have to get old, we don’t have information that we have to withhold, We’re as free as the bikers were, when they were thin, we don’t have to fade to black, let the sun come in.” That’s Chrissie Hynde offering a wry commentary on the aging process on “Let The Sun” come in, a track off The Pretenders’ latest effort, Relentless.
Although she’s edging toward 72, Chrissie Hynde has been experiencing a career renaissance, this last decade has been a wildly prolific period. She has deftly toggled between solo projects and fronting her band, The Pretenders. 2021 saw the solo release of Standing In The Doorway, a collection of Dylan covers she recorded sporadically during the pandemic. But it was The Pretenders album recorded just before Covid hit that proved to be a game-changer. 2020’s Hate For Sale was an unmitigated triumph, one of those records that is perfect front-to-back. Drop the stylus on any groove and prepare to be blown away. Not really surprising, since Chrissie has always been a force to reckon with. To the world at large, it felt as though like The Pretenders burst on the fertile London music scene at tail end of the ‘70s. But that arrival was decades in the making. A native of Akron, Ohio, Chrissie Hynde was born in 1951, and came of age just as the Beatles began blowing America’s minds, ushering in the British Invasion in 1964. Her teen years were spent obsessing over the Fab Four and The Stones, and later Bob Dylan and Iggy & The Stooges. Problem was, she didn’t want to date them she wanted to be them.
While attending art school at Kent State, she formed a nascent band with future members of DEVO. A committed animal rights activist and vegan as a teen, she became a devotee of Vaishnavism, part of the Hindu religion. When the National Guard fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine, (during a peaceful anti-war demonstration) in May, 1970, Neil Young wrote a song about it (“Ohio”), but Chrissie was there!
Three years later, she was living in London. She wound up writing for the city’s coolest music rag, New Musical Express (NME), between assignments, she worked behind the counter at SEX, the infamous boutique owned by (future Sex Pistols manager) Malcolm McLaren and (future fashion designer) Vivienne Westwood. On separate occasions, she considered green card marriages with her pals Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious so she could remain in the country.
Making music was her number one priority. Early band attempts included future members of The Clash and Generation X. But the chemistry was instantaneous when she recruited bassist Pete Farndon, guitarist James Honeyman Scott and drummer Martin Chambers. Thus, The Pretenders were born. Signing with Sire Records, their self-titled debut arrived at the end of 1979. The album was a revelation, stripped-down, spiky and endlessly melodic, it was a tart distillation of Punk, British Invasion and New Wave. The record hit #1 in Great Britain and the Top 10 in America. Hit singles like “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid” hit the sweet spot. Deep cuts like “Precious” and “Tattooed Love Boys” (wherein Chrissie penned this provocative couplet, “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for),” signaled her take-no-prisoners attitude.
Chrissie was calling the shots and making the moves. Finally, front and center, she forever flipped the script for women in the music biz. She wasn’t a shambolic Blues belter like Janis Joplin, she wasn’t a Punk/Poet androgyne like Patti Smith, nor was she a gypsy nymph, swathed in patchouli and crushed velvet like Stevie Nicks. While she respected those fore-mothers, she just chose a different form of expression. Taking her cues from her ‘60s heroes, she swaggered like Jagger in her (faux) leather pants. Much like Doors front-man, Jim Morrison, she exuded undeniable charisma. She was tough, but she also displayed a tender side. She wasn’t afraid to channel that vulnerability into her music.
The Pretenders’ saga is shot-through with triumph and tragedy. Following an EP and Pretenders II, James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon succumbed to drug addiction. They died within a year of each other. Chrissie regrouped, enlisting a new guitarist and drummer, and their ensuing records, Learning To Crawl and Get Close were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, featuring hit singles like “Back On The Chain Gang,” “Middle Of The Road,” “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and “My Baby.”
Aside from Chrissie, The Pretenders’ line-up remains fluid, Martin the mainstay pops in and out. But they have continued to record albums throughout the remainder of the 20th century, 1990’s Packed, 1994’s Last Of The Independents, 1996’s live Aisle Of View and 1999’s Viva El Amor. Three years later she and the guys returned with Loose Screw, the Rockabilly-flavored Break Up The Concrete was released in 2008.
The Pretenders took a hiatus following Concrete, allowing Chrissie to scratch a solo itch. Collaborating with raspy-voiced J.P. Jones And The Fairground Boys yielded the 2010 album, Fidelity!. Four years later, she released her first official solo record, Stockholm. A year later, her highly anticipated autobiography. Reckless: My Life As A Pretender, chronicled her life up until she tasted her first real success in the early ‘80s. Written in her typical ruthless and uncompromising style, she courted controversy and garnered rave reviews.
In 2016 she put together a new iteration of The Pretenders that included Martin behind the drum kit. Fellow Akron-ite, and Black Keys frontman, Dan Auerbach handled production chores for the band’s 10th long-player, Alone. Then she really did go it alone with her second solo effort. 2019’s Valve Woe Bone found Chrissie offering her take on Pop and Jazz favorites, like Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Billie Holiday’s “I Get Along Without You, Very Well” and The Beach Boys’ “Caroline No.” It actually climbed to #2 on the Billboard Jazz chart. 2020 saw the release of the most excellent Pretenders effort Hate For Sale, followed a year later with her pandemic project, Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan. Now she’s returned under The Pretenders brand for their 12th long-player, Relentless.
The record is off to a tentative start with the opening two tracks, “Losing My Sense Of Taste” and “A Love.” On the former, fuzz-crusted guitars ride roughshod over scabrous bass lines and a battered beat. The mood is weary and somewhat blasé as lyrics chronicle a stunning disconnect; “I must be going through a metamorphosis, pre-senile dementia or some kind of psychosis, I don’t even care about rock and roll, all my old favorites seem tired and old, my whole collection now feels like a waste, I’m losing my sense of taste.” Finding herself feeling “nostalgic and sad,” she equates her absence of passion with losing three of her five senses. Not even James’ squally and dissonant solo on the break is able to jumpstart her mojo. Even when she insists “I must be going through the motions at best” his barbed riffs act as a wordless Greek chorus, trying to incite a reaction as she concedes “maybe I’m losing my sense of hearing.”
The latter is marginally more hopeful. Jangly guitars connect with throbbing bass lines and a thunking beat. Chrissie’s ageless contralto remains ever seductive as lyrics count off the things she claims to be unafraid of; “I’m not scared of your lovely mouth, it’s your voice gets in the way, saying ordinary things that float on air and stay, I look down at your fingers, imagine them intertwined in mine and then I look away” before she gets to the heart of the matter; “A love to make the day go by, like a gentle breeze, a love to make the difficult disappear with ease, a love like ones I’ve read about, or heard about in song, a love like that may come to me, but never for too long.” Sunshiny guitars sparkle on the break, negating her diffident demeanor.
Chrissie’s musical partnership with guitarist James Walbourne has been going strong since 2008, when he joined up with The Pretenders for the Break Up The Concrete record. Trust and mutual admiration allows her the freedom to expand her musical horizons. Take “Just Let Go,” which wraps a plaintive, Countrified lament in a rangy, Spaghetti Western duster. Reverb-drenched guitar notes partner with sugary rhythm guitar riffs, serpentine bass lines and a chunky backbeat. Introspective lyrics finds our hero(ine) questioning her place in the Rock N’ Roll firmament; “Was I even good at it? I’m not even sure, I just did the job and kept my head down, I fooled myself into thinking my aims were pure, a full veil covered the face of a clown, hooked to a plow, I tilled the earth, I buried a few and to some, I gave birth.”
“Look Away” is an Elizabethan roundelay anchored by cascading arpeggios and rippling bass lines in a comely, ¾ time. A somber meditation on “lust and greed and anger and full violence in reach.” Meanwhile, “The Promise Of Love” is a piano-driven Torch song that paints a vivid portrait of the frisson that accompanies the sensation of a new romance; “The promise of love, excitement unbridled, no path up to heaven could feel more entitled, lighted and guided from darkness and sorrow, turned sadness to joy and past to tomorrow, the promise of love, the promise of love.”
The personal has always been political for Chrissie, two songs reinforce her commitment to fighting the good fight. She lays her cards on the table with “Domestic Silence.” Splayed power chords spark atop, shivery keys, chugging bass and a kick-drum beat. The lyrics accurately note that most spousal abuse is hides in plain sight; “Domestic silence has led to violence, I’m afraid, I’m afraid.” Guitars scratch and snarl, as if to mirror the lyrical friction and it all gets a little too personal; “It’s blue one day and black the next, as if I’ve been hexed.” James unleashes a blowsy solo on the break that feels like a cathartic cri de Coeur.
On “Your House Is On Fire,” courtly Spanish guitar gives way to muted keys, fluid bass and a scuttling beat. Something of a melancholy lullaby, Chrissie’s tender croon walks the tightrope between indignation and grief. Cogent lyrics lay the blame for the climate crisis at the usual suspects; greedy corporations, short-sighted politicians and an indifferent, or ignorant citizenry; “Your house is on fire, it’s a crying shame, from San Francisco to Sydney, there’s no rain… a dark murky place is all you’ve got now, you’re the last one in the race, it’s over, take a bow.
Musically, this record is a stylistic shift from the lean and unfussy, stripped-down sound of the glorious Hate For Sale. But in between the somber grace of most tracks, Chrissie and company make room for some rollicking songs. “The Copa” locks into a languid Bolero groove that quietly ebbs and flows. Willowy guitar hugs the voluptuous curves of the arrangement, bookended by sun-dappled rhythm guitar, barely-there bass and a slapdash beat. Her supple vocals envelope lyrics that recall a romantic assignation that occurred long ago; “I woke up this morning with the Copa on my mind, those days of cryptic signals I was sad to leave behind, a scarf tied to a shutter, no one else would look to find, oh I still wake up in the morning with the Copa on my mind.” James salts break with a gossamer guitar solo that drafts off the Hawaiian Slack Key tradition, as well as the high lonesome sound of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.”
Meanwhile, on the aforementioned “Let The Sun Come In,” spiraling guitar chords are wed to cumulous keys, walking bass lines and a galumphing beat. The lyrics find Chrissie in a positively quixotic mood as she tilts at windmills and kicks against the pricks; “A bunch of myths, a bunch of tales, to take the wind out of our sails, they don’t even say that we must die, I don’t believe it, that’s a lie.” Even as she bristles at being labelled a feminist, Chrissie has never followed the patriarchal orthodoxy. Otherwise, she’d have settled for the deeply unsatisfying life of an Akron housewife.
Domesticity is very much on her mind on “Merry Widow.” The arrangement begins in an almost dirge-like fashion, Bent guitar notes meander across a kinetic pulse. Subverting societal expectations has practically been Chrissie’s raison d’etre, so it feels wholly apropos that she feels comfortable retrofitting her divorcee’ designation; “I had a love, but jealous vanity meant that love could never be, so I set myself free, I’m a divorcee, but I feel like a widow, a merry, merry widow.” Just when the listener has this song all sussed, James lets rip with a modal and melismatic solo that careens out the speakers, buoyed by tribal tattoo. The tension ratchets as guitars stack, phasing, fuzzing and flanging, shapeshifting from a Tsifteteli groove to an improvised Taqsim, until Chrissie quietly reminds us, “I’m a merry, merry widow.”
Finally, the album’s penultimate track, “Vainglorious” achieves a caustic heft that summons comparisons to the feral beginnings of The Pretenders, as well as the prowling intensity of her earliest inspirations, Iggy & The Stooges. Rapid-fire riff-age is mirrored by search-and-destroy bass runs and a punishing backbeat. Inscrutable lyrics raise a glass to the all the blowhards and narcissists who strive for success at any cost. Weirdly, shadowing every verse is the kind of splintered, vocalese that Yoko Ono pioneered back in the late ‘60s. Still, it’s a crackling track, that builds to a stinging crescendo.
The album closes on a wistful note with “I Think Of You Daily.” Brittle piano runs match up with a shivery string arrangement (courtesy Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood). Part uneasy benediction, part restless farewell, the first verse finds her revisiting her ascent up the precarious ladder of success; “I was in my prime, a lucky dog was I, everything was going my way, the apple of many’s eye, I took my chances and I won, I gambled and stayed ahead, I never once looked back, or had my fortune read.” The melancholy chorus is a killer; “Now I think about you daily, and it makes me sad.” As strings swirl and ache, she reflects on old friends, lost loves and fallen comrades. Suffused in regret and recrimination, it’s a moodily elegant finish to a fine record.
Although credited to The Pretenders, this album feels more like a comfortable, albeit intense, musical conversation between Chrissie and James. A duet of sorts, augmented by assorted hired guns and friends. Still, Relentless is a study in grace, grit and gravitas. An autumnal meditation shot through with her mordant wit and timeless sense of songcraft. (The Pretenders will be performing at Pappy & Harriet’s on Wednesday, October 4th, doors open at 6:30pm, show at 8;00pm. 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, CA.)