What makes their new album so appealing
Full disclosure: I’ve been a Pretenders fan from the moment I heard them, as a kid in the suburbs.
More than 40 years later, I’m still a Pretenders fan. Chrissie Hynde’s distinct vocals and superlative songwriting have never really lost their appeal for me. And, while she would be the first to admit that she’s not a guitar hero, she still has a knack for finding them. As she told me when we spoke in 2020, “A band is about electric guitar. That’s my opinion. I had my little tunes and my little guitar parts, but [original Pretenders guitarist] Jimmy Scott made them sound a whole lot better. He invented the Pretenders sound with [the] very simple effects he had and the way he played.”
For the past 15 years or so, Hynde’s lead guitarist and partner in crime has been another James: James Walbourne, a London native, has played with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Dave Gahan and is the son-in-law of Richard Thompson. He co-wrote the songs on the new Pretenders album Relentless with Hynde (as he did with the band’s last album, Hate for Sale, in 2020).
Having said that, Relentless is a very different beast from Hate for Sale. True Pretenders fans know that, while Hynde is a rocker at heart, she can also turn out a ballad with the best of them. Where Hate for Sale was very much a rock ‘n’ roll album — 10 songs, most of them short and loud — Relentless is longer and more complex. It does rock at times — as on the album opener “Losing My Sense of Taste” or “Vainglorious” — but most of this disc is more reflective and restrained.
Moreover, Relentless features a different Pretenders lineup than Hate for Sale did. Walbourne, in fact, is the only holdover. Longtime drummer Martin Chambers is MIA here, replaced by Copenhagen native Kris Sonne. Bass duties are split between Chris Hill — who comes from a jazz background — and Dave Page, who is more of a rocker and now plays with the band live. Even the producer on Relentless is different. Whereas Hate for Sale was helmed by the ubiquitous Stephen Street, this album was produced by David Wrench, a Welshman who bears a striking resemblance to the late Johnny Winter.
Despite all these differences, Relentless is still a Pretenders album. Hynde’s vocals are as strong as ever, and the emphasis on ballads allows her to show them off to good effect. Of the ballads, the most striking are probably “The Copa” — which Hynde has described as “surfer sort of thing” — and the closing track, “I Think About You Daily.” The latter song is unlike anything else in the band’s catalog. Not only is it more than six minutes long, but it features a string arrangement conducted by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead! Throughout the album, Hynde’s lyrics often feel nostalgic — whether on those two tracks or on yet another ballad, “Just Let It Go.”
VIDEO: Pretenders “Losing My Sense of Taste”
But there are other highlights. The aforementioned “Losing My Sense of Taste” kicks the disc off in fine fashion, with some nasty guitar and Hynde declaring “I don’t even care about rock and roll/All my old favourites seem tired and old/My whole collection now feels like a waste/I’m losing my sense of taste.” That’s followed by “A Love,” which Hynde aptly calls “the most traditionally Pretenders-sounding song on the album.” From the start, she has excelled at wistful, mid-tempo songs as often as rockers and “A Love” is no exception; it should thrill fans of “Back on the Chain Gang” or “Talk of the Town.” Then there is “Let the Sun Come In.” Arriving midway through the album, after three straight ballads, this tune does feel like the sun! It’s got an incredibly infectious melody and optimistic lyrics.
I can’t lie; it’s hard not to wish there were more moments like “Let the Sun Come In” on Relentless. As lovely as some of these ballads are, I miss the edgier songs that abounded on Hate for Sale and that have always been a hallmark of Pretenders albums.
But Relentless is still a very solid effort. And you have to admire Hynde for following her muse and never making the same record twice. After all these years, she’s still special.