In the song “Popstar,” 48-year-old Chrissie Hynde is a well-worn pop star addressing the jerky ex who left her for some Kylie Minogue wannabe. Although Ms. Hynde has never marketed herself as pop star, the song makes one contemplate her 20-some-year career-starting in England with her pulling down her jeans and mooning the cameras along with Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren. Then Ms. Hynde’s days of singing in some secret British group that played with garbage bags over their heads. Then there are her animal rights activities that out-Linda’d Linda McCartney, and led to the firebombing of a McDonald’s in Milton Keynes, England. And we’ll never forget a drunken Ms. Hynde duking it out with Carly Simon at a Joni Mitchell concert at Fez in New York in 1995. Whew. Now that is a career. Compare Ms. Hynde to that younger Lilith crowd of fems-when Ms. Hynde sings, “They don’t make them like they used to,” her assessment is dead on.
“Popstar” is the opening track of the eighth Pretenders album, ¡ Viva el Amor! It is not only the best Pretenders music since the group’s career peaked with Learning to Crawl in 1984, but it is also the summer’s most marvelous straight-ahead pop album. Every fast song is radio-friendly, with hooks and jangly guitars. A few of the slow love songs even have discreet orchestras on them. Yes, strings! Ms. Hynde might as well have covered “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” and called Carly her sister, instead of decking her.
As violent as Ms. Hynde can be, we always knew this public tough cookie’s heart was as gooey as, say, Kylie Minogue’s. Even though Ms. Hynde was arrested in 1980 for punching the owner of a Memphis night club, surely that night in her jail cell she lay on her bunk dreaming of her man (“I Go to Sleep”). Ms. Hyde can be cantankerous-whether giving diatribes from the stage against flash cameras or trying to marry former pop star Ray Davies in 1982 and getting turned away by the registrar because they were arguing too loudly-but ever since the release of her 1987 cover of the Persuasions’ “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” we’ve known that, if her knuckles were ever tattooed like Robert Mitchum’s in Night of the Hunter , she’d have L-O-V-E written on both hands. Now on ¡Viva el Amor! , she finally reveals herself completely, singing, “I’m not made of brick/ I’m not made of stone/ I had you fooled enough to take me on.” Some of us, she fooled. Others saw Ms. Hynde as the kind of girl only tough enough to get a tougher boyfriend. Indeed, the two most tender love songs on ¡Viva el Amor! , are directed at a samurai and a biker (respectively, “Samurai” and “Biker”). But the songs are not rockers. They’re syrupy sweet. By the sound of them, you’d think she longs for Nick Drake, not Toshiro Mifune ( The Seven Samurai , Yojimbo , etc.) or Sonny Berger (Hell’s Angels).
Not that Ms. Hynde doesn’t have a temper. In “Nails in the Road,” she warns “My patience has worn thin/ My tires are gonna explode.” In “Baby’s Breath,” she chides her pretty-boy lover to take back his roses and save them for a funeral because “Your love is only baby’s breath.” What a devastating putdown. Ms. Hynde probably got the “roses at a funeral” line right because she-sadly enough-has had firsthand experience at various memorial services. Back during the height of the Pretenders’ popularity in the early 80′s, both her bass player Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of Doctor White and junk (1982 and 1983). Many years and band members later, one is tempted to ask, “Why are the Pretenders the Pretenders, as opposed to just being Ms. Hynde’s backing band?” Ms. Hynde has always insisted in interviews that she is not interested in being a solo artist. She needs the musical camaraderie.
This incarnation of the Pretenders on ¡Viva el Amor! is Martin Chambers, the original drummer, along with guitarist Adam Seymour and Andy Hobson on bass-those last two joining the group on Last of the Independents in 1994. The boys sound tight; the Pretenders are to Chrissie Hynde what Wings once was to Paul McCartney, just a tight pop backup to the singer. I use the word “just,” because it’s not like Adam Seymour will ever start jamming while Andy Hobson decides to pluck a sitar like Brian Jones. As in most pop music, the sonic unity of the sound is achieved mostly by production. My prejudice is toward a Neil Young stark 3-in-the-morning kind of sound, but the two producers of ¡Viva el Amor! , Stephen Hague and Stephen Street, give the album a unified radio-friendly shimmer, the kind of thing you get from Sting or Heart.
The real triumph of the album is not the production or songs, but Ms. Hynde’s voice. It has never sounded better. She has finally, finally, finally gotten rid of that exaggerated vibrato. She now uses that technique only to delicately color the sound. Her voice can also whoop and tremolo. On “One More Time,” it does so many acrobatic flips on a song so majestic and sweet, that the tune should replace “Stairway to Heaven” as the premier prom number.
On that note, let’s declare ¡Viva el Amor! the record of the summer. It should play in every car tooling out to Jones Beach or the Hamptons.
In regard to her own successes, in a recent issue of Uncut , the singer says, “I read stories about girls who say they fucked their way to the top. Man, if only it was that easy.” Yes! If only it was. Instead, Ms. Hynde has had to fight like a female palooka from Fez to Memphis. We say to the singer, “Punch their lights out, Chrissie. Knock ‘em dead.”