The title of “Boots of Chinese Plastic,” which leads off the Pretenders’ new album, “Break Up the Concrete” (Shangri-La), alludes to Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” but the song’s propulsive rhythm and surreal lyrics mark it as a close cousin to another Dylan song, “Tombstone Blues.” In just over two and a half minutes, the lead singer and songwriter, Chrissie Hynde, touches on everything from reincarnation to the global marketplace to the difficulties of ethical living. The next song, “The Nothing Maker,” supplies some yin to go with the yang: it’s a ballad about a lover whose greatest asset seems to be his lack of creative ambitions, sung with a dreaminess that may be concealing a deeper venom.
“Break Up the Concrete” is the first album of new material from the Pretenders since “Loose Screw,” in 2002, and while that record found the band going for a seductive reggae vibe, this time the charge is straightforward roots rock. For years, the Pretenders have been a band in name only, consisting of a bunch of young hired hands doing the bidding of Hynde and, usually, the founding drummer, Martin Chambers. This time, Chambers is absent, though his replacement—the session veteran Jim Keltner—is a great deal more than capable. That’s true of the entire band, in fact: the English guitarist James Walbourne, the pedal-steel player Eric Heywood, and the bassist Nick Wilkinson. The punky “Don’t Cut Your Hair” blasts first and asks questions later; “Almost Perfect” steals along with a lovely tiptoe movement.
The band’s enthusiasm is easy to understand; Hynde has written a superb set of songs here. Her persona is largely the same as it was on the band’s 1979 début, which is to say that it is tough and smart and confident and questioning and vulgar and philosophical and energetic and weary all at once. The songs gain immediacy through direct address (“Don’t Cut Your Hair,” “You Didn’t Have To,” “Rosalee”), and the exceptions tend to be irresistible pop songs like “Love’s a Mystery,” in which Hynde employs a slightly elevated class of moon-June-spoon rhymes (morning/warning, mystery/history), but with the added benefit of context, sensibility, wisdom, and her nearly undiminished upper register. The title song, a rough sequel to “My City Was Gone,” is an environmental anthem that doesn’t see conservation as passive, or even particularly nonviolent: Hynde’s idea of caring for the planet involves destroying what’s been built by industry, with impunity (“thwack it, crack it, lineback it / break up the concrete”), and chronicling the assault with a Bo Diddley beat. (New York Times)