To give you an idea of how great the Pretenders’ debut was/is, Chrissie Hynde has made a thirty-year career of it. Not to discount everything she’s released since then—I love II (review), Learning To Crawl, and parts of Last Of The Independents—but let’s be honest and acknowledge that it’s next to impossible to recreate the stars that aligned so perfectly on that first album.
It is a testament to Hynde’s strength and talent that we’re still referring to her latest incarnation of the Pretenders. And it is quite possible that we wouldn’t be speaking of her longevity had the original version of the Pretenders stayed alive and stayed the course. Thanks to unnecessary tragedy, they didn’t, but Hynde has tinkered with that original formula just enough to remain relevant and just enough to keep us from entirely writing her off.
One area of the Pretenders’ musical canon that, surprisingly, hasn’t been examined is Hynde underneath an Americana backdrop. The ninth Pretenders album, Break Up The Concrete, provides us with an example of this window-dressing. The results are a curious blend of well-worn comfort and strange unease. While the real rockers are changin’ tires upstairs, bro, Hynde has made an album that’s as unthreatening as the music in the garage shop’s waiting room.
Hynde’s remained as one of rock’s most notorious lefties, but even the political diatribes are uncharacteristically tame. The rootsy instrumentation renders them as little more than as boomer hypocrisy, their themes deadened with the nostalgia of the arrangements instead of bearing real teeth.
Even the ballads, which make up the bulk of Break Up The Concrete, sound lethargic and grown up. These are songs that should work well under the new direction, and to some extent, they do, but only when you forget how well Chrissie could command a ballad without the aid of accordions, pedal steels, and Eisenhower-era recording strategies.
Make no mistake; this is by no means a bad record or one of the worst albums you’ll hear this year. It is, however, a very unsettling listen to a hear a woman who’s built her career on sass suddenly turn so cordial. With Hynde now staring down 60, Break Up The Concrete is the first album where she truly sounds her age.