Midway through listening to Alone, the tenth studio album from The Pretenders, I was struck by a realisation: Holy shit, The Pretenders did ‘Back on the Chain Gang’!
I mean, obviously I knew this. It’s one of my favourite songs and after many years I’ve just now figured out how to play it on the guitar. That riff is gorgeous, Chrissie Hynde’s broken-yet-smouldering vocal is perfect and the lyrics – “Like a break in the battle, that was your part in the wretched life of a lonely heart” – echo the achingly pretty music perfectly.
Point is, listening to Alone it’s easy to forget that this is the same band. Hynde is the woman who made ‘Smelly Cat’ sound good on Friends and you long for her to hit the heights; it is probably unfair to hope for a ‘Brass in Pocket’, ‘I’ll Stand by You’ or ‘Kid’ but this album rarely uses these slices of pop magnificence even as touchstones. ‘Blue Eyed Sky’ is shimmering and tender, and ‘The Man You Are’ is in a similar vein – more expansive but not as good – but both lack spark.
The reason is, of course, that this is not the same band. Black Key Dan Auerbach is on hand to produce – and indeed play much of – the record and his grubby southern US fingers are all over this. This is not intended as a criticism and if you like his thing then great, it’s done with aplomb, but this is as much Auerbach’s album as much as it is Hynde’s. Witness lead single (and, er, album bonus track) ‘Holy Commotion’ with its rolling drums, redneck guitar riff, glittering synths and screams of ‘radio-friendly indie’. Or the title track, with its wasn’t-good-enough-for-Being There power chords and rolling piano and screams of ‘radio-friendly indie’.
Look, I’m aware how cynical this all sounds. And I’d be doing the album a disservice if I didn’t mention that there are a bunch of session musicians scattered throughout along with a smattering of interesting tracks. ‘One More Day’ is built around some lovely minimalist, rambling Waitsy guitar and the bluesy ‘Never Be Together’ features a nice turn from Duane Eddy – a nice surprise that Duane Eddy is not dead. Furthermore Hynde sounds fantastic: she has gone full rock chick her and her ever instantly recognisable vocal phrasing does not miss a step.
I’m not a fan of The Black Keys (apart from that one off Breaking Bad) but the point here is not to besmirch Auerbach, nor bass player Dave Roe, pedal steel player Russ Pahl, guitarist Kenny Vaughan, keyboardist Leon Michels nor drummer Richard Swift. But Auerbach is no James Honeyman-Scott; hell, he’s no Billy Bremner (not that one, Leeds fans). The thing is I wanted a Pretenders album, not The Black Keys feat. Chrissie Hynde. Which is what this all too often feels like.
5Dan Lucas's Score