These days, Chrissie Hynde flippantly calls herself a “victim of the ’80s”, as if she ever had to worry about the synthesized decade ridiculed for overwrought production. Hynde’s precious success was built on something sturdier than new wave excess, and Break Up the Concrete contains rock hard touchstones to prove it. Though she wisely upgrades her sound with copious steel guitar, it’s difficult to call this album “country” — even if she did record a duet with Willie Nelson that didn’t make the final cut, but is available as a bonus.
Working with a new band of co-conspirators, Hynde’s subversively hard-core Concrete serves up just enough old Pretenders swing to lure back fans confused by 2002’s relatively lackluster Loose Screw. The fluid electric guitar that opens up “Boots of Chinese Plastic” is summarily shattered as Hynde spits “1-2-3-4” to set off the pile-driving song, which sounds more like 1980 than 2008. In the midst of this chugging chaos, Hynde snarls about attaining virtue and rebirth while lead guitarist James Walbourne channels the spirit of the departed James Honeyman-Scott, whose untimely death in 1982 forever cemented the legacy of the band. “Every drop that runs through the vein / Always makes its way back to the heart again” is the compassionate refrain that reappears throughout this punk blast. Avowed animal lover Hynde soberly concludes that “Every dog that lived his life on a chain knows what it’s like… waiting for… nothing”. So much for this devotional love song about reincarnation!
Which takes us to the eccentric Zen of “The Nothing Maker”, an aural intro to newest Pretender Eric Heywood, who supplies atmospheric steel guitar here and elsewhere. Heywood, currently touring with Ray Lamontagne, was brought into the fold by guitar buddy Walbourne, and together they make Hynde’s ninth studio release nearly as fresh as the 1994 near-miss classic Last of the Independents. Heywood and Walbourne, a young Brit who recently recorded with the Pernice Brothers, serve to energize Hynde’s vocals, and she sings these so-called country songs with the freewheeling verve she’s had since she quit waitressing.
Recorded in a week and a half, with only bassist Nick Wilkinson returning from the last touring version of the band, “Concrete” contains its share of throwaways (the frantic “Don’t Cut Your Hair”, the buoyant banality of “The Last Ride”), but there’ve always been trifling songs — remember “Rebel Rock Me” or “Watching the Clothes” anyone?
The most hypnotic track is the slinky and playful “Almost Perfect”, one of Hynde’s psychosexual mini-dramas revolving around her own preconception of a relationship in her hometown of Akron, where she has been spending time (even opening a vegan restaurant last year). Instead of summarily dismissing her lover (you’ll recall the brutal honesty of “Private Life”, where Hynde says “Your sex life complications are not my fascinations”), here she struggles to come to terms with his imperfections in spite of diminishing returns. Her sense of humor is intact even if the relationship may be doomed. She croons: “Unemployable, illegal / You’re a whole film by Don Siegel / Ooohh, write me a song”. “Almost Perfect” is followed by the sincere gratefulness of “You Didn’t Have To”, showcasing Heywood’s pedal steel, and it makes for an irresistible song pairing.
Elsewhere is the searing cover of “Rosalee”, a midnight blues that sounds more like a Los Lobos or Alejandro Escovedo experiment thanks to drummer Jim Keltner’s hip shakin’ syncopation and Walbourne’s wide open guitar. Meanwhile, the title song is unrepentant, a Diddley stomper propelled by Hynde’s epithets of “Ram it! Cram it! Grand slam it!” as if her shouting could weaken the asphalt and return us to a natural paradise. Certainly, Walbourne gets a workout, but Hynde does not want to conclude the release on a sour rant about freeways and parking lots. The album ends with the ache of “One Thing Never Changed”, a plaintive ballad that Hynde pulls off with aplomb and mature yearning.
Alas, the Willie Nelson duet “Both Sides of Goodbye” should have been included, just so everyone could hear how beautifully Hynde’s timbre blends with Nelson’s low-key delivery. The duet features Nelson’s unmistakable finger picking, and is the best offbeat pairing since Jack White teamed with Loretta Lynn on “Portland, Oregon” a few years ago. It’s a crying shame that the song was omitted from the album’s general release, as it would have fit like a boot, but Hynde probably wanted to eschew star-studded guests on a return-to-basics album that is ultimately nothing like the Pretenders have ever recorded. It appears that, in the end, Hynde wants to go it alone in her bid to get back to the garden.