The Pretenders
Break Up The Concrete
Shangri-La Music

2 out of 5 stars

When The Pretenders debuted in 1980, they already sounded like seasoned professionals. Their lean and muscular pop-rockers were infectious, cheeky and intelligent. Nearly 30 years later, things have changed. Their latest album, Break Up the Concrete, is relatively slow, contemplative and infused with a country sound and sensibility. Unfortunately, this change in direction feels forced. Singer Chrissie Hynde is simply better at crafting clever pop songs, not sappy country ballads. Sadly living up to their name, The Pretenders wear this new aesthetic as a costume. Like a 10-gallon cowboy hat, it’s only worn for novelty purposes.

Hynde’s lyrics have also taken a dive. She spouts “no-duh” aphorisms like: “Jesus Christ came down here as a living man / if he can live a life of virtue then I hope I can / do unto others as you would have a turn / back here and repeat until you learn, learn, learn.” Her brassy, seductive croon is still alive and well, but it’s languid instead of smoldering. Like the album as a whole, it feels inauthentic.

First on the album, “Boots of Chinese Plastic” is one of Concrete‘s brighter spots. Sporting a pounding rhythm section and a playfully vibrant guitar line, it’s also one of the album’s few convincingly energetic numbers. The red-hot Delta-blues-style solo is one of the disc’s vital moments.

“Love’s a Mystery” emerges as the best of the slower songs. While predictable to a fault, the sweet melody and nuanced vocal performance keep “Love” afloat. Sadly, it’s merely the best version of the faux-country ballad formula that falters on songs like “The Nothing Maker” and “Don’t Lose Faith in Me.” Its metaphor of love as a criminal is one of Hynde’s more successful lyrical ventures. She sings: “It’ll rise without a warning / Leaving evidence and clues / Making headlines in the morning / Then it’s history / Love’s a mystery.”

None of the other songs are as successful but some are distinguished by sheer novelty. “Rosalee” is a snail-paced blues track backed by booming toms and fronted by Hynde’s croon, as thick and cloying as molasses. Sunny and syncopated, title track “Break Up The Concrete” is equally conspicuous. The anti-racist themes in the verses are uncomfortably juxtaposed with goofy lyrics in the choruses like, “Thwak it! Crack it! Lineback it! / Break up the concrete.” The rest of the songs are lost in a morass of nearly identical chord progressions and listless guitar twangs.

Chrissie Hynde can still write efficient, effective and palatable songs, but she simply seems to be out of good ones. Concrete is admittedly pleasant to listen to, but there isn’t much beneath the surface. Perhaps the greatest injustice here is that guitar player James Walbourne is held back by Hynde’s bland song structures. Rather than trying to truly experiment, Hynde has reverted to more formulaic songwriting, hidden underneath a dusty old cowboy hat.

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