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Chrissie Hynde is still Pretending--but beneath the surface is a talented balladeer

By Michael McCall

JULY 26, 1999:  A few years ago, when Joni Mitchell staged a special solo concert at a tiny Manhattan nightclub, an angry encounter between two famous audience members attracted just as much attention as the famed singer-songwriter's performance. As widely reported at the time by the New York press, Carly Simon stormed out of the club after being insulted by Chrissie Hynde, longtime leader of the Pretenders.

Hynde, who apparently had enjoyed a few cocktails, had been particularly vocal in her support of Mitchell during the performance. Simon, who hadn't recognized Hynde, at some point turned to the pale, sunken-jowled, raven-haired woman behind her and pointedly asked her to shut up. Hynde spit back that Simon should turn around and pay attention, because that was a real artist up there onstage.

The incident said much about both musicians, but it especially said a lot about Hynde, who over the last two decades has cultivated an image as one of rock 'n' roll's toughest, most attitudinal women. A hardscrabble, insolent punk from working-class Akron, Ohio, Hynde has pretty much occupied that role ever since 1980, when she helped push the punk movement onto pop radio, thereby moving the rock mainstream beyond the polite, middle-of-the-road conventions of such late '70s monoliths as Simon, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Boston.

Along with Blondie, Hynde and her band were among the first artists to score widespread commercial success with the back-to-basics principles of the punk and new wave movement. There were others who scored pop hits, including the Police and Tom Petty. But none of them, save The Clash, had Hynde's connection to punk culture. Nor did they create anything as fiercely rocking as "Precious" and "Tattooed Love Boys" or as classically crafted as "Brass in Pocket." Better than anyone, Hynde brought swagger and snarl back to rock radio, which had become far too processed and predictable at the time.

These days, however, Hynde has been coasting on reputation for far too long. For the most part, her renown rests largely on a couple of great albums from early in her career. The new Viva el Amor is being heralded by some as a return to form, but that same praise has met every album Hynde has issued since 1981, when the disappointing Pretenders II failed to deliver on the potential of the band's classic debut. Only the Pretenders' third album, 1983's undeniable Learning to Crawl, found Hynde exercising both attitude and musical strength throughout an entire album. Since then, despite lengthy breaks between releases, she has failed to lead the band into anything as consistently powerful as her initial work.

Over the years, she has released the occasional outstanding song: 1986's "Don't Get Me Wrong," 1990's "Never Do That," and 1994's "Night in My Veins" all confirmed that Hynde still had a gift for crafting a classic rock song packed with personal flair. She has also grown into a consistently outstanding interpreter of other people's songs. In the last year, for instance, she has contributed several noteworthy songs to a variety of projects: Her take on Gram Parsons' "She" is among the best songs on the recent Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons. Similarly, her live versions of "Baby It's You" and "A Message to Michael" rank among the few solid offerings on the recent Burt Bacharach tribute, One Amazing Night. That same gift of interpretation can be heard on her version of Steve Earle's "Goodbye," which opened the soundtrack to the movie G.I. Jane.

But it has been 15 years since the Pretenders issued a wholly satisfying album. In this sense, Hynde's career has unfolded much like that of one of her idols, Iggy Pop. She's recognized as a rock 'n' roll icon, and she deserves to be. At the same time, after her initial groundbreaking work, her albums have been largely forgettable. Like Pop, she can always be counted on for a memorable song or two. But when a fan needs a Pretenders fix, he's not going to pull out Packed!, Last of the Independents, or Get Close.

Despite the shouts of comeback meeting Viva el Amor, The Pretenders' latest is as inconsistent as the others. The album isn't a complete washout: "Human," for example, captures both the toughness and the romantic honesty of some of Hynde's best songs. It opens with a killer couplet--"I play a good game, but not as good as you/I can be a little cold, but you can be so cruel"--that immediately draws the listener in. Then, to a simple but clever guitar riff, she acknowledges that she's difficult and mercurial and prone to explosive episodes, yet the lover she addresses is more than her match. She pleads with him to lay down the arrows and work at getting along; after all, she's "only human on the inside"--and, she intimates, so is he.

This is the kind of song Hynde has done best for the last decade or so: She's a grown woman with a grasp of her problems and strengths, and she reveals herself with a balance of steeliness and vulnerability. And as the soul-drenched "One More Time" shows, she also remains an outstanding balladeer, even if it goes against her image.

"From the Heart Down" is another such song. Here, she tells of two lovers shutting off their minds and listening to their bodies. Despite the evocative title, though, the tune isn't an exercise in rock 'n' roll lasciviousness. Singing in her distinctively throaty voice, Hynde does cite the joy of sex, but she also emphasizes the comfort of snuggling next to a lover. Ultimately, it's a rare rock 'n' roll love song, in which a wife and mother, in beautifully sensual lyrical images, reveals why romantic attachment is important to her.

Unfortunately, for too much of the rest of Viva el Amor, Hynde strains to resurrect her trademark snarl, but her lyrics lack any bite. When she released her first record, her songs revealed her confronting various personal conflicts: her attraction to rough boys vs. a desire for romance, motherhood vs. independence, ambition vs. a disdain for moneychangers, and self-reliance vs. a need for love. But these days when she shoots her mouth off, she stoops to belittling young female pop stars for not being as pure as she is or directing superficial put-downs toward estranged lovers. Even her romanticism, so wonderfully expressed in "From the Heart Down," sinks to espousing the joys of loving bad men in the treacly, string-laden "Bikers."

In truth, her lyrics suggest she doesn't have much to rail against anymore. Even so, her most explosive musical material still comes wrapped in punk-influenced rock music, as in the new "Popstar" or "Legalise Me." Should she give up such songs, and the bad-ass stance that accompanies them, her music would suffer.

That's the dilemma Hynde has faced for more than a decade: How does she mature and move forward without losing what makes her special? She writes sensitively and convincingly about being in her mid-40s, but an album of songs like "Human" and "From the Heart Down" would lack the bite of her best work.

So far, Hynde hasn't found a way to reconcile who she is now with who she once was and who her fans expect her to be. Until she does, we'll have to settle for a few moments of clarity amid a haze of artifice and false moves. The occasional song still makes Hynde worth paying attention to, but it also leaves the listener desiring more.

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