Pretenders spins the exciting, perverse tales that Paul Schrader's American Gigolo didn't have the nerve to tell: stories about how good, tempestuous sex can be redemptive; how bad relationships thrive on degrees of contempt; how passionate self-absorption can sometimes open up into a greater understanding of the people with whom you're involved. Indeed, the songwriting of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde is the first indication I've had that we've finally progressed beyond the Me Decade. Lead vocalist-rhythm guitarist Hynde and her exceptional band examine and refute so many socioliberal pietiesreplacing them with personal, hard-earned lessons and unfashionable conclusionsthat Pretenders stands as some of the freshest, most provocative music around right now.
It's therefore all the more odd that, on a cursory listen, Chrissie Hynde sounds like just another pretender to the New Wave women's throne. She's got Debbie Harry's expressive-bleat routine down cold and I mean cold. Hynde's voice has a deep, harsh frostiness that settles over long notes and smothers them with an inexorable quaver. Very quickly, however, you realize that this singer has a lot more going for her than intimidating authority: she plays in a group that bashes and clangs with endless variation, as if the idea were to state the maximum number of themes with the minimum number of chords.
The Pretenders three English males and one Akron, Ohio, emigrant secured their first British hit from a Ray Davies oldie, "Stop Your Sobbing." Produced by Nick Lowe, the tune had that Labourer of Lust's feathery pop feel: echoed to enhance Davies' wistful melancholy, Hynde sounded like a solo Mamas and the Papas, but her tone surged at the ends of choruses to imply enormous resentment at even having to think about sobbing. Between Lowe's languid lushness and Hynde's patent feistiness, there arose such ineffable tension that you could easily play "Stop Your Sobbing" over and over just to sift through its constant shifts of mood. In other words, it was ideal radio fare.
"Stop Your Sobbing" graces Pretenders like a sweet but firm kiss-off to the album's first side. All around it, however, lurks Hynde's true interest: sexual politicians who are running for nothing less than the Mastery of the Relationship, herself included. Like any good candidate, Chrissie Hynde relishes ruthlessness, and is just as hard on herself as she is on her lover-opponents. Yet she'll be damned if she'll let them know that.
Instead, she wages war. As many times as I've heard it, I still get startled and shivery when Hynde rejects a would-be lothario in the very first song by muttering, "Not me, baby, I'm too precious/Fuck off." Soon after, in "Up the Neck," she describes her lover's bedroom technique in admiring detail, but then concludes: "It was all very, ah, run of the mill."
Throughout these skirmishes, drummer Martin Chambers flutters and hammers like an aroused heartbeat, while guitarist James Honeyman Scott and bassist Pete Farndon back all of Hynde's imprecations with savagely precise, curt power chords. At one point, their energy spills over into a moody malevolence that knows no words (the instrumental "Space Invader"), only to curl around the singer's opening "Hunghh!" in the next cut, a gloriously incoherent raveup called "The Wait," which proves to be about the efficacy and the clarifying power of sexual love.
Sometimes the Pretenders get so wrapped up in limning restlessness and a rage at social stupidities that the music begins to drone, as it does in their quickly repetitive position paper on infidelity, "Private Life." But it's a measure of how well Chrissie Hynde establishes her identity that, by side two of this debut record, you can already tell when she doesn't have her heart and mind in a song. Similarly, "Mystery Achievement" is too airy and aimless, a shaky attempt to make guitar turbulence translate into troubled eloquence.
The rest of the time, Pretenders pulls your hair with its achieved ambitions. Hynde is endlessly quotable, whether she's using an iron fist as a metaphor for her sexual clout ("Brass in Pocket") or tossing off wisecracks like "Stop sniveling/You're gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man." Again and again, she twists the hairy arm of the hard-rock cliché behind the enemy's back and yanks upward, hard.
In the end, what's most exhilarating about the Pretenders' music is that it completely eschews irony during a period when it's commonly thought that you can be sincere only when you're being totally ironic. Hynde doesn't bother with heroic postures either she knows that you know she's not fighting for her life here, but just looking out for herself and her loverand that's what gives the LP's penultimate composition its desolating crunch. "Lovers of Today" is a lurching litany of romantic ideals, all of them systematically denied by the tune's pace and the loud, dolorous guitars.
At the conclusion of "Lovers of Today," Chrissie Hynde calls into the abyss of reverb: "No I'll never feel like a man in a man's world." That this album's sharpest, most poignant personal avowal is folded into a fadeout is a clear example of the way Pretenders constantly challenges its audience, and invites us to think and rock as hard as the band does. (RS 315)
(Posted: Apr 17, 1980)
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Review 1 of 2
For my money, one of the top five rock records ever made. There's nary a false note. For twelve months or so of 1979-80, the Pretenders were the greatest band in the world, and this is one of those albums that sounds as immediate, supple, and ferocious a quarter-century later as on the day it was released. The mix, incidentally, is fabulous, and a big part of its impact; when Guns N' Roses were looking for someone to mix the "Use Your Illusion" set, they asked themselves which records of the past had most grabbed them, and settled on Bill Price, for his work not only on this record but on the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks," also one of the top five of all time. See the interview with Bill at http://mixonline.com/mag/audio_bill_price_interview_2/
Nov 16, 2006 14:17:38
Review 2 of 2
The first Pretenders album is one of the great rock albums. For over a quarter of a century it has provided fun and energy and emotion and all those things records should. It still does this and sounds as fresh as when it was released. Repeated play over all those years has not diminished its appeal. And I still put songs from it on mix tapes. Right on!
Oct 19, 2006 02:00:01