The Prentenders
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The Pretenders Are Still in Fighting Shape on ‘Relentless’

The title Relentless encourages expectations of a youthful, hard-rock Pretenders album, but it’s dominated by lost-love ballads and slow-burn confessionals.

The Pretenders
15 September 2023

When the Pretenders were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, Chrissie Hynde ended her characteristically terse acceptance speech with “two notes—boom-boom, boom-boom: Keep moving, but never change.” It’s a little alarming, then, when the first line she sings on the Pretenders’ new album, Relentless, is “I must be going through a metamorphosis.” Never change?

The line opens a song called “Losing My Sense of Taste”. According to Hynde, it’s her take on the pandemic lockdown—a theme almost no one wants to hear about anymore, and despite what Hynde says about the song, you don’t have to. Although “Losing My Sense of Taste” was inspired by the COVID times, it’s clearly about something else: late-life loss of all sense and sensibility. Over a heavy but chugging minor-key backing track, Hynde sings of “senile dementia or some kind of psychosis / I don’t even care about rock and roll.” In addition to violating her induction-speech enjoinment to “never change,” is she also going to stop moving and park the Pretenders for good? By the song’s end, she’s moved through losing her sense of taste to losing her sense of smell to—perish the thought—losing her sense of hearing: the one thing no rock and roller can live without.

The very existence of Relentless, the Pretenders’ 12th studio album, proves Hynde isn’t about to stop or change, no matter how fungible the personnel or sporadic the band’s output over the last few decades. Currently, the band’s core is Hynde and James Walbourne, who initially attracted notice as the secret weapon in the Pernice Brothers in the mid-2000s. Walbourne attached himself to the Pretenders in 2008 and is now Hynde’s chief collaborator. The duo co-wrote the songs on Relentless and its predecessor, Hate for Sale (2020), and it’s Walbourne’s expressive lead guitar that confirms we’re listening to the Pretenders and not a solo Chrissie Hynde record.

There’s no question that Hynde is the Pretenders and the Pretenders are Hynde, but she has insisted for decades that there’d have been no recognizable band without founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who died of a drug overdose in 1982 when he was just 25. It was Honeyman-Scott’s guitar tone and style that, in tandem with Hynde’s voice—one of the most distinctive and expressive in rock history—created the band’s original musical signature. Hynde knew not only how important Honeyman-Scott was to the band’s identity but also how essential his role was to her traditionalist rock ideology: “One thing that never goes out of favor is a guitar hero,” she recently told an interviewer. “And I make sure I always have one.” (“Always” isn’t quite correct, and when she hasn’t, the Pretenders’ music has tended to suffer as a result.)

In Walbourne, she has a guitar hero who reproduces Honeyman-Scott’s imprint and adds much of his own to it. Walbourne is a noticeably showier axe-man than Honeyman-Scott, who preferred to be thought of as a rhythm guitarist. His solos, when he took them at all, tended to be tasty but unflashy commentaries on Hynde’s melodies, often taking the form of concise, compressed arpeggios and usually embedded in the songs as complementary elements rather than standing out as conspicuous set pieces.

Walbourne lets loose more often than Honeyman-Scott did and with more high-risk fingerwork. He’s also generally louder and more aggressive, which suits the music he writes for Hynde’s lyrics. Whereas Honeyman-Scott had few songwriting co-credits in his short but decisive tenure (he died after the Pretenders’ second album), Walbourne is the band’s chief composer. Although he knows he’s creating music that he will ultimately play—he also handles some keyboards and bass, as well as nearly all the guitar parts—his sensibility and priorities make ample room for Hynde’s presence, rather than his own, at the center of the compositions. The melodies support her lyrics, character, and inimitable voice, and the chords sound like Pretenders chords.

That is not easy to do—it’s almost certainly harder than writing for oneself, but Walbourne is very adept at it. He and producer David Wrench (in his first collaboration with the Pretenders) surround Hynde with a somewhat heavier, thicker sound than the Pretenders have generally purveyed, driven by the nimble and sturdy drumming of Kris Sonne, who, for both better and worse, is no Martin Chambers, the Pretenders’ founding drummer with whom Hynde has maintained an on-again-off-again, sometimes mutually antagonistic partnership for four decades. (Watching them suddenly break out into bickering during their joint Hall of Fame induction speech is awkward fun.)

The title Relentless sounds like it’s meant to echo that of Hynde’s 2015 memoir, Reckless. Along with the cover image of a graffiti-art kid boxer, the word “relentless” encourages expectations of a youthful, hard-rocking, high beats-per-minute affair. Yet Relentless is actually dominated by melancholy lost-love ballads and slow-burn confessionals. Only four of its dozen songs are mid- or uptempo, and a straight-through listen can be a little fatiguing, like going 12 rounds with a veteran heavyweight. That it nonetheless maintains its energy and footwork throughout testifies to Walbourne and Wrench’s adroit work as cornermen and, more substantially, to Hynde’s bona fides as an undisputed and uncompromising rock survivor. She’s both reckless and relentless.

Her true gift, though, is how deeply vulnerable she so often allows herself to be. Hynde yearns like no one else. “Security, security / I took off my shoes / Turned around, and you were gone” recounts a simple airport farewell near the end of “The Copa”, a beachy and atmospheric surf-guitar tune, but in Hynde’s pleading delivery, it becomes the devastated cry of someone who bared her body and trust to a lover and asked for protection and assurances, only to be abandoned.

Yet the one who is leaving in that scenario is Hynde, boarding pass in hand, flying off to the next gig (or lover)—”keep moving” indeed. She is not only relentless and reckless but also restless, and her lyrics often return to her constitutional indisposition to stability. In her worldview, exes are dead to her: “I’m a divorcee, but I feel like a widow,” she sings—but “a merry, merry widow”, she’s quick to clarify. The sentiment picks up on her repeated insistence, “I like being alone,” on the lead track of the pointedly titled Alone (the song has the same title). She really means it.

The resulting tension in many of Hynde’s songs comes from the push-pull between connected love and guarded aloneness, and it propels much of Relentless. The rest of the album coheres around many of the same subjects and people that have preoccupied Hynde for much of her career: addiction, cycles of birth and death; bikers (speaking of cycles), the Vedas, the counterculture cartoon artist S. Clay Wilson, Folkie Tims Buckley and Hardin (a Buckley-style psych-folk freakout punctuates “Merry Widow”); sun and sky and passing clouds, hotels in faraway places. The Hynde who exhorted us to “never change” is still practicing what she preaches.

The only missing agenda item here is her environmentalism unless you can infer a lament about climate change from the first verse of “Your House Is on Fire”: “From San Francisco to Sydney, there’s no rain.” The song is clearly not about a burning planet, however. It’s another goodbye letter, this one to a loser in the sport of life whose self-defeating victim act led to a “dark, murky place”—the wrong kind of aloneness.

The Second-person POV is often a guise for self-talk, but it’s hard to believe the addressee of “Your House Is on Fire” could be Hynde herself. Victimhood has never been her act, and although she’s been burned plenty, she has long protected herself from entrapment and suffocation—or, to use a boxing analogy, she can be knocked down but never out. Right after “Your House Is on Fire”, she delivers one of the heaviest gut punches of her career with the next track, “Just Let It Go”, a simple but beautiful tune that features some of Walbourne’s most affecting guitar work on Relentless. “Just Let It Go” is a comprehensive memoir-in-miniature, touching on Hynde’s early days dreaming of rock stardom and progressing through the self-doubt, professional difficulties, and personal disillusionments of achieving it, then returning to the cycle-of-life theme: “I buried a few, and to some I gave birth.”

“The changes came fast, but the torments were slow,” she sings in the chorus, an epigrammatic articulation of the relentlessness implied by the album’s title, but “in the end, I let it go.” By the end of the song, she has shed all earthly constraints and is simply “a person, a gender, a human soul” who feels caged by the structure that life imposes, hears a distant, emotionless bell toll, and readies herself to leave this world. She has already prepared for this departure in an earlier song, “Let the Sun Come In” (the only truly upbeat track on Relentless), in which she wants “a soul that can’t be perished / a song that’s always cherished”. If you have those, then you can let it—let life—go because you’ve already guaranteed that you’ll “live forever: that’s the plan”.

“Let It Go” would be a perfect finale for the album and for Hynde’s career. It’s unlikely to be the latter, though, and it’s categorically not the former. “Let It Go” is the album’s tenth track, but Relentless is a 12-rounder. Next comes the rocking, sneering “Vainglorious”, which sounds like the most vintage-Pretenders song of the dozen—it features an unmistakable musical quote (presumably it’s deliberate) of the central guitar riff from “Up the Neck”, an undervalued but great track on the band’s 1979 debut album.

After “Vainglorious” ‘s firm reiteration of Hynde’s rock DNA, Relentless concludes with “I Think About You Daily”, a slow, languid letter to yet another lost lover whose identity Hynde explicitly refused to name in a promotional interview for the album. She’s been tight-lipped about her personal life throughout her career; even her rockstar romances with the Kinks’ Ray Davies and Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr were conducted well out of the public eye. Hynde’s consistent guarding of her privacy (“I like being [left] alone”) is part of the self-preserving instinct that has protected her from the worst of the perils to which her rockstar recklessness has long exposed her. It has also earned her the right to conceal the details of her biography even as she sings plainly and plaintively about it.

Nearly 50 years of rock relentlessness have also earned her the right to court schmaltz. (She was already doing that 30 years ago, let’s not forget, when she paid hitmakers-for-hire Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg to write “I’ll Stand by You” for her and get her back into the Top Ten.) After “Let It Go” pushes the emotionality right to the edge of tolerability, “I Think About You Daily” may topple over it (perhaps she is losing her sense of taste, after all?). Featuring a seagulls-crying-over-the-spindrift string section composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, the song dwells lengthily and heavily on Hynde’s regret over how she mistreated the one she lost and now thinks about daily.

This wallowing guilt is a little surprising coming from Hynde, who has always been an avowed love-and-leave type, a solitary soul, and a believer in the impermanence of all things and experiences, including (indeed especially) romance. It might suffice to characterize the song’s sentimentalized and self-pitying breakup vibe by saying that it would be fun to hear Lana Del Rey cover it (which might, in turn, suffice to acknowledge the debt women in rock continue to owe Hynde). It might also suffice to assess the song by saying that the degree to which it works for you will probably depend on how much you need Hynde to conform to the image and persona of the boxer on the cover of Relentless. Whatever you think, you can be sure it’s all the same to her.

RATING 7 / 10