"Precious," the first track on Pretenders—probably one of the greatest debut albums ever made—roars out of London's punk ferment with a ferocious attack that evokes "motorcycles with guitars," the sound young Chrissie Hynde had conceived for the band she'd formed. Hynde, "the greatest female rock singer ever," according to a record executive who would be a vice president at Warner Bros. Records, doesn't sing on "Precious." She spits and hisses a down-and-out-in-Cleveland rant, circa 1975: sex, probably drugs, certainly rock 'n' roll, possibly crime, and driving furiously. The guitar solo is a police siren in pursuit. At the end, Hynde declares: "I had to fuck off!"—to London, presumably, where the native Ohioan has lived as an expatriate for forty years.
Flash forward to the first (and title) song on the new Pretenders album, Alone. It's a rollicking track that sounds like a barroom band from, say, Cleveland circa 1975. Again, Hynde speaks rather than sings the lyrics, which insouciantly celebrate solitude and self. With her conversational sixty-five-year-old voice and dry laconic defiance, she sounds a little like Lou Reed. No driving this time—she left America to escape the multifarious evils of what she called "car culture." She walks to the newsagent for a paper. The longtime cinephile checks the film listings: "Ah, there's one I've been wanting to see. Who's up for a movie?"
Before you can adjust to Hynde's disarmingly easygoing mood, let alone answer the question, she adds, with a sort of contented sneer—and laser-perfect comic timing and tone—"I am!"
This might be the first truly funny moment of Chrissie Hynde's recording career. "She has the sense of humor of your average ayatollah," rock critic Robert Christgau once wrote of her, although her close friend Morrissey called her "by far the funniest person I have ever met." He clarified, however, that "this is not to suggest that Chrissie has a sense of humor, because she doesn't appear to."
Hynde doesn't care if you're up for a movie or not. "I like being alone," she insists, happily, and "Alone" concludes with an f-bomb, just as "Precious" did in 1979: "What are you gonna do about it? Hmm? Absolutely fuck-all."
Had you forgotten all about Chrissie Hynde? Our Lady of the Eyeliner, the rock legend from Akron who exiled herself to London, almost married two Sex Pistols, and formed the Pretenders, who conquered the radio in the late seventies and MTV in the early eighties with "Brass in Pocket" and "Back on the Chain Gang"? She survived the drug-related deaths of her guitarist and bassist, then mostly disappeared for nearly a decade to be a single mom and raise her two daughters. She reclaimed the spotlight in 1994 with the schmaltzy piano ballad "I'll Stand by You," cowritten by the shlockmeisters who wrote "Like a Virgin," "True Colors," and other chartbusters.
Perhaps you took note of her occasional activism and arrests for the animal rights cause in the 2000s. (Her songs are licensed for use by PETA after she dies.) Maybe, last autumn, you followed the controversy over Hynde's memoir, Reckless, in which she took "full responsibility" for a sexual assault she suffered in Cleveland in her "Precious" years (the assault is the basis for the great Pretenders song "Tattooed Love Boys"). Accused of "victim blaming," she doubled down on her responsibility claim with characteristically feisty comments to the press: "Just don't buy the fucking book, then, if I've offended someone." That elicited additional public ire—and more victim blaming, ironically.
But the Pretenders? Did they even still exist? They did—they do—as Hynde-plus-whoever for two decades. Both with and without them, she has kept making music, pausing along the way for the band she's led for nearly four decades to be inducted into Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She called the institution "cheesy," of course.
The Pretenders' first-rate 1999 album, ¡Viva El Amor!, was ignored by her own label, Warner Brothers, and it stiffed. The band was unsigned when it made its next one, 2002's accomplished quasi-reggae LP, Loose Screw, which Hynde auctioned off to an indie label. After that, she thought of disbanding the Pretenders. She spent time in South America, collaborating with Moreno Veloso, son of the legendary Brazilian singer Caetano, on music that was never officially released.
At the Pretenders' 2005 Hall of Fame induction, she met an entrepreneur who talked her into letting him bankroll another Pretenders album, 2008's ramshackle but wise Break Up the Concrete. The following year, she collaborated with a Welshman named JP Jones on a gritty roots-rock album they wrote in Cuba and recorded back home in the UK, called Fidelity!. They released it themselves. Nobody bought that, either.
In 2014, the Great Pretender surprised everyone by making a strong and shapely solo album, Stockholm, with a couple of Swedish producers and her friends Neil Young and John McEnroe guesting on guitar. And then came her memoir, 2015's Reckless, an apparent capstone to the resilient career of a great rock 'n' roll survivor.
But Hynde is back. "She'll be rocking till she drops," Neil Young said when he inducted the Pretenders into the Hall of Fame. She's a great and greatly underrated songwriter, often in collaboration. Her main conspirator on Alone is producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, from Hynde's hometown of Akron, where the staunch expat now spends some of her time. Hynde intended Alone as a solo release like Stockholm, but it morphed into a Pretenders album—not that the difference is clearly measurable anymore.
Nor does it matter that Hynde's voice—among the most instantly recognizable in music—has both lost and dropped its range, and occasionally wobbles and goes flat. That's just character. Her vibrato remains rich and expressive, and as that same admiring record executive noted, it's really "two different voices: one for the ballads and one for the rockers."
Alone has both. As fierce as she is, Hynde can also be deeply vulnerable. Just listen to "Kid," "Talk of the Town," or "Show Me" after the bruising "Precious." Alone is a collection of good, good-sounding, well-played songs—by yet another new Pretenders lineup that includes the legendary Duane Eddy lending guitar work—that explore Hynde's familiar late-life concerns as a lyricist: lost love, war and peace, patience and acceptance, the divide between the body and the spirit (she's a lifelong acolyte of Hinduism).
Hynde's streak of masochism and often pitiless self-examination is here, too. Try "I Hate Myself," Alone's de facto Hyde to its Jekyll title track, in which she lists all the reasons why in between repeating the title thirty-eight times. Her moaning delivery fairly drips with angst. Is it a put-on? How can she hate herself if she likes being alone? It's hilarious. Or it's dead serious. What are you gonna do about it? Hmm? Absolutely fuck-all.
Adam Sobsey's biography of Chrissie Hynde will be published by University of Texas Press in 2017.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Great Pretender."