[7 July 2014]
On the opening track of Chrissie Hynde’s solo debut album Stockholm, she sings “I’ve waited so long”, a sentiment that could serve either its implied romantic function or as an appropriate mission statement of waiting to break free and present herself as a solo artist. Regardless of its intention, the fact of the matter is the Pretenders have always been Chrissie Hynde and then whoever fills in behind her. Her inimitable voice is the voice of the band, regardless of who’s backing her. Without her there could be no Pretenders and, with that line of thinking, following the band’s first couple albums, each subsequent release could’ve essentially functioned as a Chrissie Hynde solo album. For all intents and purposes, this too could be yet another Pretenders album were it not for the explicit indication that it is, in fact, not a Pretenders album and in fact a Chrissie Hynde solo album.
Despite many of the sonic touchstones of the best Pretenders records being understandably absent from this handful of tracks compiled by Hynde and new collaborator Björn Yttling (he of Peter Björn and John fame), Hynde’s voice, having long since established itself as the driving force of the band, makes it hard to hear this as anything but a new Pretenders album. In order to distract from this fact, Hynde has wrangled a number of friends and collaborators to help her out on her debut some 35 years after forming the Pretenders. While the majority of the credits read like that of an Abba record (these sessions were conducted in Europe after all), two names in particular stand out: Neil Young and John McEnroe.
While the former’s inimitable playing style is heavily evident throughout “Down The Wrong Way”, which plays more like a guitar/voice duet, nothing about McEnroe’s work on “A Plan Too Far” comes across as anything more than novel in the fact that a former tennis great has turned up playing guitar on the Pretenders front woman’s first solo album. In fairness, however, McEnroe’s guitar wanking is somewhat overshadowed by Hynde’s atrocious lyrics featuring such gems as “the slope gets slippier” (though she may actually say “slipperier” and, if this is the case, her diction could use a little work) and describing someone as being “as consistent as a weathervane cock”. Getting Johnny Mac to play guitar on the album seems the stuff of friends doing friends favors and better left on the demo reel shared between said friends than on the final cut meant for a wider audience. It does, however, have the makings of a somewhat interesting conversation piece that ultimately goes nowhere.
And sadly, that last statement holds true for much of Stockholm in that there is little about which to get excited. Despite a somewhat solid collection of songs from Hynde, nothing truly sticks out as memorable or possessing the hooks of her better-known material. Instead, Hynde relies on her limited vocal range to dictate where these songs can and will go musically which, unfortunately, leaves little room for any sort of growth or range in the material as it meanders along more or less at the same level throughout. Yttling does his best to create at least some differentiation between tracks (employing various contemporary flourishes throughout, especially on the polished “You’re the One”), but Hynde’s limited range as a singer and well-worn bag of vocal tricks tends to keep things from exploring any sort of new or revelatory musical territory.
In fact, it’s the overwhelming familiarity with Hynde’s voice and her tough/laidback approach that holds back many of these songs and, in the process, makes Stockholm little more than an occasionally pleasant listen. Pretenders fans hoping for some great declarative solo statement from Hynde will have to return to their well-loved Pretenders albums for comfort, especially after the bizarre experiment that is “Tourniquet”. Beginning with Spanish-style guitars and celeste, the barebones song morphs into an unsettling lullaby of sorts, complete with spaghetti western whistling that manages to avoid the proper pitch throughout, remaining just above and aiding in making “Tourniquet” an abject failure. Thankfully it’s the shortest track on the album and an aural anomaly that seems to have been an experimental dead end.
Elsewhere, tracks like “In a Miracle” show Hynde’s already limited range to have diminished somewhat with the passage of time as she struggles to reach the higher points in the song’s ascending melodic vocal figure. Her voice having been pushed to the front of the mix doesn’t help matters much either as it seems to sit atop the instrumentation rather than more comfortably settling in with it. This forced, borderline uncomfortable approach seems somewhat indicative of the album as a whole as Hynde finds herself truly on her own without the Pretenders name on which to fall back, still possessing her very specific vocal attitude, but lacking the appropriately musical setting in which to express it. Stockholm plays more like a failed experiment in attempting to find one’s solo voice after 35 years fronting both a band and a very specific sound rather than the declarative statement of a powerful solo voice the album’s cover would have the listener believe.
All in all, very little on Stockholm stands out, despite the best attempts by all involved. By album’s end, acoustic closer “Adding the Blue” feels more like an artist shrugging off into the sunset than hammering home any sort of declarative solo statement that would make Stockholm warrant repeated listens. If she doesn’t really seem to care all that much, why should we?