This review of one of the best albums of the ‘80s was originally written 22 March 1984.
Those stars of stage, records, and rock videos, the Pretenders are simply the Pretenders. And they’re still real after all these years. Their musical career has spanned nearly 48 months in an era when bands are ushered into forced retirement after three albums. Their latest offering Learning to Crawl was a surprise and yet it wasn’t a surprise. It’s the Pretenders, all right, but why so strong? Chrissie Hynde’s songwriting is more powerful than ever, and each track on the album blends thematically into the next. Each song at least touches on the very large topic of time and the assorted transformations that result from the passage of time. Learning to Crawl is an adventure in thematic unity.
The opening track sets the tone. “Middle of the Road” finds Chrissie standing in the middle of her life, with her past behind her. The song is a crazy string of allusions to gum on the sidewalk, Hampstead nurseries, silk shirts, and hitting the road. All stops are out and Chrissie even counts the beat—one, two, three, four—yowls like an alley cat and plays harmonica like Mick Jagger did in 1965. But the song works.
All this new wave strutting gives way to “Back on the Chain Gang”, one of the more haunting songs to be released in some time. This one has extra texture, and the rhythm, lyrics, and vocals combine to deliver a message of unbearable longing.
Segue into “Time the Avenger”, a tune powered with a weird fervor, straight 2/4 punkabilly. This song clearly is dedicated to men in three-piece suits, secretaries who dress for success, and other impossibly insulated people. If you’re feeling the least bit comfortable with your life, things can change, you know.
But then again, some things never change. “Watching the Clothes” is a paean to washing the clothes. Hanging out in the laundromat on a Saturday night, Chrissie and the band can’t muster a single profound thought. Who could? But the very next song on the album, “Show Me”, has every profound thought.
The Pretenders really branch out on “Thumbalina”, a straight ahead rockabilly highway song that pushes relentlessly forward like a truck driver trying to regain lost time. A trip across America with Chrissie at the wheel singing to put the kids to sleep in the backseat and to keep herself awake.
By the time she reaches Ohio, the Pretenders are in the mood for some of their finger-in-the-socket rock and roll. “My City Was Gone” is about changes and not every change is for the best. If growing up in the Midwest was bad, imagine returning to find it gone. All evidence to support childhood memories is utterly gone as surely as if an atomic bomb had dropped on the school playground. The farmland has been replaced with shopping centers. No wonder the guitar work on this track is so furious.
Traveling backwards to find your past is always a long way to go, but not nearly so distant as a sweetheart on the road. “2000 Miles” is one of the sweeter songs to come along for quite some while and deals with longing and waiting in a way that will move the most hardened listener.
As time goes on, the Pretenders are becoming more like the Pretenders. They have their own recognizable sound, their own unique approach to material that is simple, sophisticated, and accessible to increasing numbers of listeners. If you think you’ve heard it all, try Learning to Crawl.
Cultural P.S. and S.O.S: This record was offered in 1984, a year that inevitably evoked reminiscences of George Orwell’s 1984, a contemplation of a future plagued with the unending war. Rush Limbaugh eventually purchased rights to use “My City Was Gone” as theme music for his widely syndicated, highly-conservative radio show.