Sep 18, 2023, 05:57AM

Chrissie Hynde's Rock of Ages

Relentless is the best rock album anyone over 70 has ever made.

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Lots of the cool kids and musical geniuses of rock 'n’ roll didn't make it through. Lots have ended up doing television commercials or staid residencies here and there. Perhaps at this point a surviving rock star is living an inappropriately dignified retirement on the Riviera or, if they blew it all, in a trailer park somewhere.

But some rockers have endured to the point of quasi-eternality. There's no doubt that part of what sold the Rolling Stones in 1965, or the Pretenders in 1981 (my two favorite bands of the rock era), was a youthful rebellious energy, a sneering swaggering hyper-confidence. Oddly and inspiringly, neither Mick Jagger nor Chrissie Hynde seems to entirely have lost that, and both still on occasion give us that evil grin, now crinkly and sparkly rather than collapse-the-culture charismatic and subversive.

Still, the activity of rockin' like a mofo is a bit different when (like Hynde) you're 72, or (like Jagger) you're 80. No doubt you've slowed in various respects. However, by that (this) time you’ve played a lot of music. Maybe you understand your own strengths and weaknesses better than you did before. You don't have anything to prove except maybe your mastery. If you've made it this far, you're probably not in the middle of cocaine addiction.

We oldsters are still angry, still angsty, still concerned, hostile, full of love and music. Our experience is as intense, if in different ways. We still have bodies. We still have sex. We still fall in love or out. But we also have to face death in a different way. Hynde proves right here that these experiences can be rocked.

The new Pretenders album Relentless might be the best rock album anyone over 70 (or maybe 60) has ever made. Hynde still pulls punky, jagged guitar solos from her players (such as her now long-time co-writer James Walbourne). She's still singing, so beautifully, with that big deep vibrato. She's still writing cool and surprising lyrics. She's still aggro, and emo too. As the portentous guitar sounds build, she launches the album with a brilliant piece about the Covid moment, maybe, or about aging, or about depression, or about everything: 

I must be going through a metaphorphoses

Senile dementia or some kind of psychosis

I don't even care about rock 'n’ roll

All my favorites seem tired and old

My whole collection now seems like a waste

I'm losing my sense of taste

Then if I'm understanding correctly (the lyrics don't seem to have been posted as I write), she's singing about Rothko and observing that "I'm not interested in art these days." These are unusual themes for rock lyrics. (Singing about things that rock singers never sang about before, particularly from her perspective located in a woman's body, is her hobby.) She seems down, or we all do. But that's not exactly what you get from the music, which is pointed and propulsive. The song shows that she still cares about rock 'n’ roll. And it includes the sort of lines that Hynde pops up with again and again over all these 40 years: funny or odd, until you realize how heavy (in the 1960s sense and other senses) they are: "I must be going through the motions at best. I thought about you so much that it cost me a breast." There are things we haven't sung much about yet. "I'm a divorcee, but I feel like a widow."

"The Pretenders," for decades now, are whomever Hynde is recording or gigging with (she's already been playing the new material live all over the world), but only if they play in a certain way. So for example, the great Chrissie Hynde solo album Stockholm (2014) isn’t a Pretenders album, essentially because the arrangements don't sound very punky, and the guitars don't constantly create nifty echoing melodic structures, and interestingly-timbred sheer noise, using whatever pedals were used by James Honeyman-Scott, the guitarist on the first two Pretenders albums, who died in 1982. I’m supposing that in 1980, Hynde told Honeyman-Scott, drummer Martin Chambers, and the producers how she wanted the whole thing to sound. And ever since, she's told the same thing to a string of studio or touring players, because they always end up in that vein. Her voice is entirely inimitable, but so is that sound. The "late" Pretenders albums, Break Up the Concrete (2008), Alone (2016), and Hate For Sale (2020) are masterful and under-heard, as good as her work in the 1980s.

But though this album is definitely in the classic Pretenders vein, and though a number of songs, including the first three, belong on one's 60-cut-or-so "Pretenders best" playlist, a number of the songs (starting with 'The Copa" and "The Promise of Love") don't really have precedents in the Pretenders previous work: they’re slower, more meditative, more discursive, jazzier, and maybe more literary too, with a bit of a "Beat poetry" vibe. Despite the continuity of this album with all the Pretenders' work, Hynde is still developing.

I think this is important: we the aging may still run into very creative periods or possibilities; we have to try to open ourselves to this. I'm married to the painter Jane Irish, who, until around 60, had to work day jobs, and who, after her release, started developing like she was in her 20s: phases, deepenings, departures; big surprises and small transcendences at every turn. But then also the returns: Irish to many previous themes (the violence of Western art, for example) in new ways, Hynde to the ravisher mode that gave us I Go to Sleep or "Birds of Paradise." With the beautiful I Think About You Daily, she closes the album with haunting descending figures from a string section, suggestive of death.

But there's also life-affirmation here, albeit with a touch of irony or self-knowledge, as "Let the Sun Come In," a song built around a classic Pretenders riff. "We don't have to get fat; we don't have to get old; we don't have information that we have to withhold," Hynde claims, maybe about her generation; we're "free as the bankers when they were thin."

"To live forever, that's the plan," she says, amusedly. But still, her acceptance of aging and death rocks throughout the record. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the new Stones album, and I think we should all keep rocking as hard as we can for as long as we've got. But I'll be surprised if Mick Jagger can give us the sort of courageous, jagged, beautiful self-portrait that Chrissie Hynde gives us here.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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