Pretenders’ ‘Relentless’: Winning New Music From One of Rock’s Great Singers

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Chrissie Hynde (Photo: Ki Price; used with permission)
Photographs Ki Price

Relentless is the first new Pretenders album in three years, following 2020’s Hate for Sale, and it’s just the fifth collection of fresh material from the group to arrive in this century. That’s a bit misleading, though, since Pretenders prime mover Chrissie Hynde has also released three ostensible solo CDs over that period, most recently 2021’s criminally underappreciated Standing in the Doorway, a sublime collection of Bob Dylan covers. Moreover, Pretenders releases are all really Hynde CDs and vice versa, since albums credited either way have always been dominated by her material and performed by her and whichever musicians she chose to work with at the time.

For Relentless, which arrived on September 15, 2023, and is the 12th album issued under the Pretenders’ name, the now-septuagenarian singer opted to partner with only one of the people who helped her make Hate for Sale: James Walbourne, her lead guitarist since 2008. Like that earlier album, the new one finds him co-authoring of all the material with Hynde; he also plays multiple instruments, including mellotron, assorted other keyboards and guitar.

Stephen Street, who produced Hate for Sale as well as 1999’s ¡Viva El Amor!, has been supplanted in that role by Welch musician and songwriter David Wrench, who also plays various instruments on several tracks. Drummer Martin Chambers, who has frequently performed in the Pretenders since its founding in 1978 and appeared on Hate for Sale, is replaced on Relentless by Kris Sonne. Gone, too, is bassist Nick Wilkinson, whose instrument is played here by Chris Hill and, on two tracks, by Dave Page. The new album additionally features multi-instrumentalist Carwyn Ellis, who did not appear on the last Pretenders CD but first toured with the group in 2012.

All of these changes notwithstanding, there are no musical U-turns on Relentless. As long as Hynde remains in control, it seems, Pretenders albums will likely retain the same distinctive sound, which employs abundant hooks; strong melodies; muscular, garage-rock influenced instrumentation; and most importantly, Hynde’s authoritative, instantly recognizable vocals.

Relentless opens with “Losing My Sense of Taste,” a title that seems Covid-inspired until you hear the lyrics, which turn out to concern aesthetic discernment and seem autobiographical. “I don’t even care about rock and roll,” Hynde sings. “All my old favorites seem tired and old/My whole collection now feels like a waste/I’m losing my sense of taste.” Maybe she was just having a bad day when she wrote that because Relentless sounds like the work of someone who still loves rock and has terrific taste in music.

Watch the band perform the track at a NYC club date in August

The opening track isn’t the only one that appears to be the work of someone who is having a tough day, however. In “A Love,” Hynde sings, “I’m afraid, afraid every day,” for example, while “Merry Widow” finds her confiding, “I had a love, but jealousy, vanity meant that love could never be.” In “I Think About You Daily,” which features a string arrangement by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, she confesses, “It only makes me sad, things that got away/I treated you real bad.”

And in “Look Away,” she sings, “I think sometimes I’d been better off been born blind/Then I wouldn’t have these dark images run through my mind.”

The album is not as melancholy as such lyrics might suggest, however, because the music—a well-balanced mix of punchy rockers and lilting ballads—keeps the proceedings upbeat. “Let the Sun Come In,” the album’s first single, and “A Love” are almost as catchy as the group’s 1982 classic, “Back on the Chain Gang,” while the dreamy “The Copa” features the sort of acoustic guitar you might find on a Chris Isaak album. Throughout, you’ll hear nothing to diminish Hynde’s reputation as one of rock’s greatest and most emotive vocalists.

Related: Our Album Rewind of the Pretenders’ classic debut 

Jeff Burger

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