Even rock stars grow older, and what’s most compelling on Packed!, Chrissie Hynde’s first album since Get Close in 1986 is her air — partly resigned, partly hopeful — of battered maturity.
She still calls her band the Pretenders, though no members remain from the original 1980 lineup, and only one (drummer Blair Cunningham) played on Get Close. What’s striking is how much sadness seems to lie behind both Hynde’s singing and her songs. For the most part, this is much quieter music than the last Pretenders album. And it’s far more glum.
The first (and by far the strongest) cut, ”Never Do That,” sets the tone. It’s supple, melodic rock about a failed love affair. Hynde’s voice, rising from the gentle ringing of guitars, seems to be made from the same troubled material as the melody. At the word ”misery” Hynde lingers on a dissonance, creating the musical equivalent of a brief meditation on pain. She sings enigmatic lyrics about illusion, and even the guitars are shrouded in a throbbing haze.
Other songs are more energetic, but rarely more cheerful. In ”Downtown (Akron),” Hynde evokes a jumpy, stark rock nightmare of sex, drugs, and violence under ”burning sulphur skies” in mid-America. In ”Millionaires,” she crows with derision over the rich few, as she aligns herself with the downtrodden many. But her sarcasm seems cheap. ”We slash their tires ‘cause we’re pathetic,” she sings, sounding unable to get beyond helpless scorn.
She’s often hopelessly elliptical, even in the otherwise compelling ”Never Do That.” There’s apparently something she’ll never stoop to do, but she never quite tells us what. This album has moments, in fact whole songs, where the sheer force of Hynde’s honesty grabs your attention. ”When Will I See You,” for instance, is a desperate love song, and it’s precisely the contradiction between the emotion and the soft-rock style that makes Hynde’s words come tumbling out with such urgency. But not everything on this album works. Too many songs aren’t focused enough — even musically — to click.