REVIVALS OF INNOCENCE in the world of contemporary music, though commercially successful, are always brief. The latest, "power pop"--the fusion of the energy of new wave rock'n'roll and the syrupy friendliness of mid '60s tunes--stayed around about as long as Nehru jackets.
Instead, we're back to the jaded, controlled craftwork of the mid '70s, admittedly with a twist of new-wave perversity to keep the listener interested. The Pretenders, one-part American and three-parts British, are one of a half-dozen new bands sporting a tight, high-voltage sound but displaying little of the spontaneous vitality which gives the pop-rock genre a reason for being.
Not that the songs on their debut album--all but one written and sung by Akron, Ohio's Chrissie Hynde--lack energy. It's just that the spontaneity has disappeared, and everything seems under control. Hynde sings with an assurance only surpassed by the technically excellent guitar-work of James Honeyman "Jimmy" Scott, who comes across as the veritable voice of experience as he deals vibrating, heavy-metal chords.
The notable exception happens to be the best song of the lot. "Stop Your Sobbing," written by Ray Davies of the Kinks some 15 years ago, is oddly the album's freshest, most vital cut--perhaps Nick Lowe's production helped. Released early last year as a single, it features Hynde's versatile voice at its alluring best, and the only upbeat lyrics on the record:
It is time for you to laugh, instead of cryin'
Yes it's time for you to laugh, so keep on tryin'
There's one thing you gotta do
To make me still want you,
Yes, there's one thing you gotta know
To make me love you so,
Gotta stop sobbing..
Davies' innocence, apparently ahead of its time in 1964, sounds fresh and different today, while the music--a haunting melody backed with thumping guitar, lilting background vocals and fronted by Hynde's beguiling voice--is the most interesting of the album.
Hynde's own compositions don't fare as well. Each is built aroung a technically proficient guitar, amply provided by Scott, and her own diverse vocal emissions, usually lyrics but sometimes grunts or pants, which contrast well with the powerful guitar.
What's missing are the pop hooks which seemed so ubiquitous a mere month or two ago. Songs like "Girl of my Dreams" by Bram Tchaikovsky, "Starry Eyes" by the Records, or "Let Me Into Your Life" by the Beat may have been simple and innocent but they were fun to listen to. Hooks aren't absolutely necessary, but unless you're Eno, Ferry or Fripp their absence usually makes music unpalatable. The few songs that do have hooks, "Kid," "Tatooed Love Boys" and "Mystery Achievement," are catchy enough to be enjoyable, but not enjoyable enough to balance the irritating, tuneless quality of the rest.
HYNDE'S MESSAGE is also irritating. Self-assured and in control, this new breed of woman artist (see Martha Davis of the Motels) is loath to display any signs of vulnerability, even emotion. Instead, they offer lines like:
You asked me for advice, I said use the door
But you're still clinging to someone you deplore
And now you want to use me for additional black-mail
I just feel pity when you lie, contempt when you cry from "Private Life," or
I'm going to make you see
There's nobody else here
No-one like me
I'm special, so special
I gotta have some of your attention
Give it to me
However, unlike Blondie or even Patti Smith, who often provide a similar message, Hynde writes songs too immobile to be enjoyable. This is not a "clarion-call for the Eighties" album: in fact, it has very little vision at all. Instead, it relies on the craftwork of an artisan--Scott--and the strange, appealing voice of this sophisticated woman to pull the music through. It just doesn't pull far enough.
The Pretenders is an important, state-of-the art album. Neither the musical technique nor the message is new, but both are here to stay for awhile. As the new decade begins, the music world has split into rival camps: the "energy-makers," spearheaded by the Clash, Elvis Costello, Blondie, and even old rockers like Neil Young and the Who; and the "under-controls," which includes the whole disco scene, groups like Yes, Styx, Foreigner, and, unfortunately, this new generation of semi-new-wavers.
Perhaps this album provides the listener with a realistic sense of life--experience over innocence--but if this is life today, sugar-coated pop would be easier to bear. And that may be the major failing of this album: its portrayal of the new, jaded world is too accurate to be enjoyable, too controlled to be authentic.