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‘Relentless’ Review: Pretenders’ 12th Album Is A Hungry, Restless Push Towards The Future
Ki Price, courtesy of DawBell PR
In Depth

‘Relentless’ Review: Pretenders’ 12th Album Is A Hungry, Restless Push Towards The Future

The sound of a band thriving, Pretenders’ 12th album, ‘Relentless’, pushes beyond the group’s established rock and pop template.

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Originally attributable to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the phrase “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” seems especially apt when considering Chrissie Hynde’s career as Pretenders’ frontwoman. Jaw-dropping even by rock’s mercurial standards, her band’s history has scaled the highest of highs (their stunning initial triumvirate, Pretenders, Pretenders II and Learning To Crawl, long since enshrined the band’s legend among the world’s best rock bands) and sunk to the lowest of lows with the premature deaths of original members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon. Nonetheless, personal tragedy has invariably been followed by artistic triumph for Chrissie Hynde, and her band’s excellent 12th album, Relentless, again suggests her career has distance yet to run.

Return of Pretenders: “The life of the artist, you never retire”

Hynde has referred to the survival instinct that has often driven her in a statement issued ahead of Relentless’ release, suggesting that the dictionary definition of the record’s title – “showing no abatement of intensity” – is like “the life of the artist, you never retire”. Ultimately, however, Relentless is about more than simply endurance. Pretenders’ first studio album for Warner since 1999’s Viva Al Amor, it’s also their most high-profile release in years, and it arrives with a frisson of expectation that’s arguably been missing since 1994’s excellent Last Of The Independents.

Produced by David Wrench (David Byrne, Courtney Barnett) and the result of sessions at London’s Battery Studios, Relentless is the second Pretenders album on the trot to be written by Chrissie Hynde and guitarist James Walbourne. The latter – whose CV also includes work with artists as disparate as Jerry Lee Lewis and Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan – has been part of Pretenders’ line-up since 2008’s roots-flavoured Break Up The Concrete, but he really comes into his own on Relentless, proving himself a dextrous foil for Hynde throughout.

Meanwhile, the rest of the current team – bassist Dave Page, keyboard and guitar alumnus Carwyn Ellis and drummer Kris Sonne (deputising on record for Martin Chambers) – also acquit themselves admirably. In fact, their collective input suggests that Relentless – rather like its 2020 predecessor, Hate For Sale – is the result of a team effort rather than a Chrissie Hynde solo set presented under the Pretenders flag for convenience.

The songs: Pushing beyond Pretenders’ quintessential rock and pop template

Acknowledging the band’s recent past, Relentless’ opening track, Losing My Sense Of Taste, is a dense, broiling rocker which could easily have made the cut for Hate For Sale. Curiously, Hynde’s lyrics speaks of enervation and ennui (“I’m not interested in art these days”), yet her delivery is as forceful and focused as ever, and she’s also right at home on the ensuing A Love: a classic slice of Pretenders chug’n’chime for which all involved bring their A-game.

Hearteningly, Hynde and company are also on vintage form on tracks such as the swaggering, anthemic Let The Sun Come In; the tough, Pretenders II-esque raunch of Vainglorious and the drum-heavy creep of Domestic Silence. Indeed, the latter comes on like an older, experience-scarred relation of Pretenders’ classic Up The Neck, complete with a viciously elegant solo from Walbourne which would surely have won the Honeyman-Scott seal of approval.

Elsewhere on Relentless, though, Hynde and Walbourne’s desire to break new ground is commendable, resulting in a clutch of songs that push way beyond the quintessential Pretenders’ rock and pop template. Though always beguiling, the results of these bold excursions into left-field are often strikingly different, with dreamy fare such as The Copa and the waltz-time folk-rock workout Look Away contrasting starkly with the Doors-esque psych-rock maelstrom of Merry Widow and the ruminative Just Let It Go: a slow-burning confessional in which Hynde tellingly reflects, “I buried a few and to some I gave birth.”

The latter is arguably Relentless’ most spine-tingling moment, though it’s pushed neck and neck by the album’s closing track, I Think About You Daily: an epic six-minute ballad akin to a more resigned and world-weary I’ll Stand By You, it’s framed by tumbling pianos and a weeping string arrangement by Radiohead/The Smile mainstay Jonny Greenwood which provides the ideal denouement to this latter-day addition to the best Pretenders songs.

The verdict: ‘Relentless’ is the sound of Pretenders thriving

Relentless, then, is a huge credit to Chrissie Hynde, James Walbourne and the whole Pretenders crew. Returning with a new deal and an illustrious history, the group could easily have coasted along on former glories, but instead they’ve made a hungry, restless record which respects their past but also edges them decisively towards the future. All things considered, Relentless doesn’t capture the modern-day sound of Pretenders surviving, it documents them thriving.

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