Is there a singer in rock & roll whose voice is more expressive, more emotionally alert, than Chrissie Hynde’s? Listening to the Pretenders’ Last of the Independents, the strongest music Hynde has made since 1984’s Learning to Crawl, you can’t help but be struck by the authority of her deep, quavering contralto. When Hynde sings of an intense affair on ”All My Dreams” (”No drug-induced bliss/Could ever reach the heights of this”), her slyly slurred tone is at once groggy and erotic-the musical equivalent of the state of mind her words describe.
Hynde matches form with content again and again on Last of the Independents, whether she’s delivering the hilariously over-the-top manifesto ”I’m a Mother” or pledging solemn faithfulness to a loved one on the somber anthem ”I’ll Stand by You.” Songs also expand and contract to fit the mood she’s trying to evoke. Reinterpreting Bob Dylan’s ”Forever Young,” Hynde takes advantage of its five minutes to meditate languidly on middle age. Then, getting drunk in a bar on ”Tequila,” she becomes so miserably depressed that she can’t keep that song going for much more than a minute.
Such discreet virtuosity, the ability to summon up complicated emotions in the simplest, most direct manner, has always been Hynde’s greatest skill. That’s why her band’s 1980 debut, Pretenders-haughty yet intimate, graced by tough-love humor-remains an inspirational thrill. After the beautifully harrowing Learning to Crawl, Hynde’s music frequently succumbed to self- consciousness, but Independents is a stylistic clearing of the throat.
Take, for instance, the remarkable ”977,” a song that sounds like a woman daydreaming, imagining a conversation she wants to have with her lover. Hynde half talks, half sings long lines crammed with words: ”When you try to cut me down and push me back if I attack your attitude/I rise up to the challenge ’cause I like to taste the sugar of your violent mood.” ”977” is all about power and how it shifts back and forth between two people in a romance, with Hynde articulating rock-song sentiments usually reserved for men. ”When I saw my baby cry,” she sings with pitiless satisfaction, ”I knew that he loved me.”
As vibrant as it is, Last of the Independents also has its wobbly moments, like ”Rebel Rock Me,” a pointless bit of Presley-style rockabilly. Yet it’s almost amazing the album is as good as it is, given that virtually all Pretenders records are little more than attempts to re-create the layered jangling Hynde cooked up with the band’s original lineup. Among those supplying the familiar, ghostly licks this time are guitarist Adam Seymour of the Katydids and Primitives’ bassist Andy Hobson. Independents also reunites Hynde with the Pretenders’ founding drummer, Martin Chambers, whose propulsive slamming gives the album much of its headlong force.
Over the last few years, a raft of female musicians have come along to work their own variations on blunt rock & roll. They all owe Hynde for the example she set as a postpunk woman who played the boys’ game with warm irony. With Last of the Independents, Hynde sounds ready to reclaim her place as a vital musician with new grudges to nurse, new romantic scores to settle.