Album Assignments: Pretenders II

I love Pretenders II. I mean, I love this album like loving a person. I’ve known it for over 30 years now. Whenever we get to spend time together, no matter how much, the time always feels too short. It was my companion through some of the most intense parts of my life, and every time I’ve revisited it over the years has been a pure pleasure. I listened to it so much during the writing of Earth And Sky 3 that I gave it a shout-out in a SPAG editorial. It was only a matter of time until I assigned it in this series, so that I could write a tribute to this album that’s meant so much to me.

What is it that’s so special about Pretenders II? That’s the question I was trying to answer as I listened this time, and this record, in its richness, offered up quite a few explanations. The first of these that comes to mind is Chrissie Hynde’s voice. This extraordinary instrument glides effortlessly through a dizzying variety of moods. She snarls on “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, and croons on “I Go To Sleep”. She’s frenetic in “Louie Louie”, nostalgic in “Birds Of Paradise”, and furious in “Pack It Up”. “Talk Of The Town” aches with unrequited desire, while “The Adultress” manages to exude contempt and compassion in equal measures.

Huge ranges of emotion are available even within a single song. In “Jealous Dogs”, for example, she moves from indignant (“Who do they think we are? / What do they think we do?”) to sardonic (“Mind your leg”) to downright goofy (“You’re not allowed on the couch! / Get down off the couch!”) and many points in between. No wonder I could connect with this album no matter what I happened to be feeling in my own life.

Album cover for Pretenders II

There’s a lot more here than just an amazing voice, though. Hynde and James Honeyman-Scott pack this record with fantastic riffs. “Message Of Love” is Exhibit A — a bouncing, slashing guitar hook that pulls us into the first verse and then amps up our excitement for the next one. “Day After Day” opens with a fusillade of eighth notes, underpinning the song’s warplane imagery. The guitar in “Pack It Up” is all punk-rock energy, propelling Hynde’s inner John McEnroe while she skewers inadequate men as “the pits of the world.” Meanwhile, “The Adultress” sports an absolutely filthy riff, and Honeyman-Scott adorns it with desperate solos befitting the song’s subject. That riff is so filled with disgust that Hynde later repurposed it for her Ohio gentrification kiss-off, “My City Was Gone.”

This would be Honeyman-Scott’s last album with The Pretenders, as both he and bassist Pete Farndon would die of drug overdoses after recording it. Farndon’s contribution shouldn’t be underestimated either. Menacing bass crawls at the feet of “Jealous Dogs”, slinking around and constantly threatening attack. It provides the melodic foundation for “Talk Of The Town”, an unsung hero complementing Hynde’s voice and providing emotional heft behind the drums. The pseudo-reggae of “Waste Not Want Not” lives entirely on Farndon’s striding bass figures.

So yeah, there’s great music here, and marvelous vocals, but it’s the songs themselves that make Pretenders II into such a close friend of mine. It’s far from a concept album, but there is a thread running through many of the songs, and that thread is the experiences of women. We jump into it right away with “The Adultress” — the character in this song is filled with shame, but nevertheless compelled by wretched loneliness to meet her married man, over and over again, her assignations carrying the mystery and power of ritual.

A very different woman rules “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, a dominatrix who brooks no bullshit. “You don’t listen, do you, asshole?” she asks, pure Dirty Harry ferocity. “Pack It Up” gives us a similar character, though she’s kicked those bad boys to the curb, fed up with their crap, their trousers, their insipid record collections, and their banal pornography. The narrator of “Jealous Dogs”, on the other hand, reserves her disdain for the other women who are sniffing around her lover, “always wanting more.”

The most complex and satisfying of these characters arrives in “The English Roses.” In it, Hynde keeps the distance of a storyteller, tying together themes that arose earlier in the album. The woman who paces around her room, looking to the sky for an answer, may well be the future version of the lovestruck and lonely character in “Talk Of The Town.” As she presses a rose into her hymnal, the ossification of her hopes and dreams, she’s a mirror image of the spinster in “The Adultress”, albeit one whose loneliness has not driven her to desperate extremes. This story, “of fruit cut from the vine / forgot and left to rot / long before its time”, is of a woman who heard the message of love, but spent day after day unable to find anyone but the pits of the world. She was looking for someone to hold, but ended up with a wish made on a star, and a thousand broken dates. Melancholy bass and guitar seal her fate, as Hynde sings her away.

Before I close, I want to talk about the song that moves me most on this album: “Birds Of Paradise.” For me, it’s the culmination of the band’s artistry on Pretenders II. Hynde evokes heart-piercing images of innocent love and girlish dreams, reaching a crescendo in these lyrics:

Once upon a time, my mind still there wanders
Back in your room, the things I remember
One time when we took off our clothes
But you were crying
You said, “Nothing lasts forever”
We were happy together

Have you ever been in a relationship that was doomed by forces beyond your control? If not, let me tell you: this is exactly how it feels to look back on that time. Hynde’s vocal performance is masterful, bringing together regret, nostalgia, resignation, and eternal fondness. I’m sure I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, especially since I listened to it on endless repeat at certain times of my life. And yet even now, decades later, it still moves me deeply. That’s the beauty of old friends — they knew you way back when, and can bring back your memories of long-lost selves, reconnecting you with the long line of your soul’s history. Thanks Chrissie.

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