Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
The Pretenders Are Still 'Relentless'
Chrissie Hynde: Articulate Rock 'n Roll Woman
By now you might have heard about Jann Wenner's self-immolation in a New York Times interview with Talk columnist David Marchese. Promoting his new book of mostly old interviews, all with white dudes, the Rolling Stone founder suggested that women, including Joni Mitchell by name, weren't "articulate" somehow.
This is the curse of Wenner's self-infatuation, that he chose to ruin his legacy (he was removed from the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which he co-founded), instead of simply giving the simple, correct answer: These were conversations with his friends and heroes, the celebrities, for whom Wenner violated the rules of Journalism 101 by letting them read their words before publication in Rolling Stone.
One antidote to Wenner's narrow focus is Chrissie Hynde, whose excellent new Pretenders album, Relentless, was released Friday, Sept. 15. Since 1979, when the band released its debut album Pretenders, it has been the vehicle for Hynde's distinctive Angl-American rock and roll: "Kid," "Brass in Pocket," that midtempo-with-teeth that Truffaut might have called nouvelle vague. That the band has changed constantly over the years, that she has almost always been the only woman in the band, only proves that she learned before she could crawl, that men, especially musicians, could benefit if they had a woman to show them what to do, how she wanted it done.
Having turned 72 earlier this month (Sept. 7), there's no sign of Hynde letting up, or letting go. Her current tour alternates small clubs for Pretenders fans, and opening arenas and stadiums and festivals for Guns N Roses.
I haven't followed her work much in the 21st century. I was less charmed by Standing in the Doorway, her 2021 album of Dylan covers, than many in the Bob Studies cohort. The last Pretenders album that caught my ear was 1994's Last of the Independents, on which friend Billy Steinberg, and his writing partner Tom Kelly, co-wrote five of the songs with Hynde.
When I asked Billy what it was like to write with her, he replied with this tale:
In one of our early songwriting sessions Chrissie asked for a microphone. She liked to prowl around the room singing and ad libbing as if she were on stage. At one point, she stood on her head and belted out an unforgettable version of Shelley Fabares’ early 60’s hit, “Johnny Angel.” Tom Kelly and I fell in love with her immediately. Those songwriting sessions yielded numerous songs, including the hits “I’ll Stand By You” and “Night In My Veins.”
I tried to visualize Hynde standing on her head singing "Johnny Angel": maybe if I had done that as a teenage lyricist, I might have written some hits too!
But let's talk about Relentless. The Pretenders are Hynde's brand as well as her band, the personnel ever shifting. Every song was written by Hynde and her guitarist James Walbourne. Drummer Kris Sonne is on every track, so that makes him a full-time Pretender, I guess, while bass is either Chris Hill or David Page, or Walbourne. Multi-instumentalist Carwyn Ellis appears on various tracks, but in an era of splashy "features," the only well-known guest is film composer and Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood, who arranges the strings on the closing track, "I Think About You Daily." It is a song of both regret and persistence. Producer David Wrench is a Welshman based in London, and one gets the sense Relentless was made quickly and efficiently.
The album opens with the "Losing My Sense of Taste," which may be the first rock song about most common side effect of the Covid treatment Paxlovid. But it's about more than that literal mouth-feel of the most bitter chocolate wrapped in aluminum that is my recollection of the drug. It's about the general stasis of the Covid years, the everlasting blahs, the lack of focus and absence of imagination. No cranky complaint about U.K. lockdown, as both Eric Clapton and Van Morrison put to music to the detriment of their legacies: Hynde captures the mood of the times, but still lets it rock.
As a lyricist, Hynde has never had a problem being direct, speaking her mind. And her wit is sharp as ever. "Merry Widow" compares divorce (she's had a few) to widowhood, which some women may find arguable, but she makes her point so crisply: "He thought love was a competitive sport/He wasn't my sort/So I left him at the port." Tacked on to the end of the song, guitarist Walbourne expandd the sound into some middle eastern modalities over the crunch of heartland rock that Akron, Ohio, native and longtime U.K. resident Hynde keeps close to her heart. I thought I saw Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and the rest of Jefferson Airplane looking on approvingly, but maybe that was just a Paxlovid flashback.
"The Promise of Love" is a very clever song, possibly about a one-night stand. It's clear she's singing about someone, but she'll never say who, or exactly where, despite the details: "The Orlando hotel in late November/Snow on the ground so cold and white." If one wanted to snoop and check with Mr. Google, it is usually about 75 degrees in Orlando in November. But: on November 21, 2006, central Florida got a dusting and some snowflakes from a renegade weather system, the first November snow in Florida since 1912. So sir, if you were there, send Chrissie a postcard.
Our weird and frightening environmental moments have not escaped Hynde's eye. "Your House is on Fire" could easily speak to the summer of 2023, of wildfires run wild, of heatwaves in incessant waves. A longtime animal rights activist, her restraint is admirable in pointing out the damage done to air, water, forests, avoiding the apocalyptic but making her case.
You know what really pisses her off, though? Cell phones, which she sings about in "Look Away," and the cost to human relationships: "Light-hearted interaction/crushed before the the force of the addict's satisfaction." She is not immune to this now multi-generational ailment herself: "I tried to look away, but the pull was too strong," she sings.
"Vainglorius" takes me back to the punk energy of "Precious," the first song of the first Pretenders album. "A Love" has the hook of one of those early singles, though with more vulnerability:"I'm not scared of you, I'm scared of me right here," she sings, longing for permanence but never finding it. "Domestic Silence," which indeed she rhymes with "violence," would scare anyone who understands that abuse comes in many guises.
The two most affecting songs include "Just Let It Go," the plight of a woman which could have been written 200 years ago or yesterday. "Hooked up to a plow/I tilled the earth/I buried a few/and to some I gave birth." Yet in the next verse, she could have been singing about the downside of musical careerism: "A person, a gender, a human soul/What kind of career/means a life in a cage?" The first time I heard this, I thought, back in the day of the song-plugger, I would give Adele a shot at this ASAP.
The other song that stands above the rest is "Let the Sun Come In." If the theme reminds you of "Let the Sun Shine In" from Hair: The Tribal Rock Musical, it might not be accidental. But what I really think is that this is an answer song to The Who's "My Generation" and the exhortation: "I hope I die before I get old." Not only does Chrissie Hynde reject that––"We're as free as the bikers were when they were thin"––a funny line in reflection. Hynde rejects the idea of dying altogether. "To live forever, that's the plan." Or at least, "with a soul that can't be perished, with a song that's always cherished." I'm good with that. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: May Chrissie Hynde live to be 110, and the last voice she hears be yours and mine.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is reader-supported. Substack is becoming the world’s newsstand, and I appreciate your choice to view and perhaps pay to read this.