This is an album about life and death and love and transcendencesubjects not much discussed on the brave new dance floor these daysand for Chrissie Hynde and her battered band, it is a triumph of art over adversity. To say that Learning to Crawl reconfirms Hynde as the most forceful female presence in rock already demeans her achievement: The matter of gender aside, she is the most unaffectedly personal of contemporary singer/songwriters, and surely the most astringently intimate lyricist working within a real rock & roll context. And if this third Pretenders album lacks the sense of revelation, of a new voice being heard, that so distinguished the group's first LP, the insights here are deeper, the wisdom harder won.
The unusual richness of this material becomes more readily apparent with a bit of background. The story so far: Chrissie Hynde leaves her home in Ohio and sets out for London. There, she gets caught up in the mid-Seventies punk-rock ferment and forms her own band with her drug-loving English boyfriend, who's a bass player, and a previously unheralded guitarist and drummer from his provincial hometown. Their first single is a hit, as is the group's debut album, released in January 1980 to international acclaim. It is dream-come-true time. Hynde meets her idol, Ray Davies of the Kinks, and becomes pregnant by him. Then the dream starts to sour. The Pretenders' bass player, Pete Farndon, has become a junkie and must be sacked from the group. Two days after Farndon's departure, the band's guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott, another longtime drug enthusiast, dies of cumulative abuse. Ten months later, Farndon also dies, from drug-related causes. Kaboom, as they say.
This history has left Hynde, as she says in "Middle of the Road," the first cut on Learning to Crawl, "Standing in the middle of life/With my past behind me." A less gifted artist might easily have turned the reverses Hynde has endured into a maudlin chronicle of Hard Times in Hip City. But Hynde has emerged from the human wreckage of the last twenty months with her cold eye and cleansing anger intact. There are no outright sob stories here; the heartbreak seeps through between the lines.
In January 1983, in the midst of the Pretenders' personal and professional nightmare, Hynde gave birth to a daughter, Natalie. And while she doesn't try to disguise the fact that the child's arrival has profoundly altered her world viewa reaffirmation of life amid the death and decay all around herneither does she exploit the baby's significance for the usual weepy purposes. Instead, she overlays her new maternal insights upon the larger world of the six o'clock news and the daily papers, and tells us what she now sees: "There's corrugated tin shacks filled up with kids/And man, I don't mean a Hampstead nursery/When you own a big chunk of the bloody third world/The babies just come with the scenery."
It is a hallmark of Hynde's lyrical art that her inclination toward the personal modeas opposed to the deadening generality that ultimately allows starving children to be seen as newsreel backgroundcan result, in the flick of a phrase, in a piercing universality. In "Thumbelina," a rockabilly scorcher, Hynde, in the role of a mother on the run, tells her infant daughter that "what's important in this world" is "a little boy, a little girl." It's a statement of true romance on two levelslove matters, kids matter, and fuck whatever's supposed to be fashionable this week. The unending yin and yang, from birth to death, is "what's important in this life," she sings and then, almost as a throwaway, adds, "Ask the man who's lost his wife." It's a line that summons up whole histories of heartache.
Hynde's romantic stancean unlikely combination of bristling personal autonomy and a vast sympathy for both sides of the masculine-feminine conundrum is unique in popular songwriting. In this tough-woman's world, children may assume the paramount importance of prefeminist tradition, but menas fathers, as loversare often transient figures. If anyone walks out of a relationship, it's usually the woman. This assumptionthat women are every bit the equals of men, not least in their power to woundis both the sad, knowing message and the implicit warning of a song such as the dark-hued, brooding "I Hurt You." It is also the theme of the album's one cover, a faithful and gorgeously realized rendition of the Persuaders' 1971 soul hit, "Thin Line between Love and Hate." Here, in one of the LP's most luminous moments, Hynde wraps her extraordinary alto around the words as if she'd commissioned them herself: "The sweetest woman in the world/Could be the meanest woman in the world/If you make her that way.../She might be holdin' somethin' inside/That'll really, really hurt you one day."
If Hynde has been through the love mill more than once, she's still, in the end, a believer; but at the age of thirty-two, she's beginning to suspect that "finding the right man" really isn't the ultimate goal. The real goal is transcendence. In "Show Me," another song addressed to her daughter, she says: "You with your angel face.../Welcome here from outer space/The Milky Way's still in your eyes/You found yourself a hopeless case/One who's seeking perfection on earth/Or some kind of rebirth."
Learning to Crawl, at the very least, achieves a professional rebirth that seemed uncertain as recently as a few months ago. Instrumentally, the band has its moments, but the late Honeyman-Scott's latticework lyricism is often missed and probably irreplaceable. There's also an occasional unevenness to the overall band soundoutside musicians were brought in to play on certain tracks before new bassist Malcolm Foster and guitarist Robbie McIntosh signed aboardbut producer Chris Thomas, for the most part, manages to pull things together.
But Hynde, as ever, is peerless, probing at truths that most songwriters never get around to wondering about. She caps off this chronology of death and regeneration with the incandescent British Christmas single "2000 Miles," all Byrdsy chiming guitars and Spectorian glockenspiel a "simple" pop song and a shrewd seasonal release that will be with us for many Christmases to come. As will its author, one can only hope. (RS 415)
(Posted: Feb 16, 1984)
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