Learning to Crawl

The Pretenders

1983: WEA 9 23980-2

  1. Middle of the Road
  2. Back on the Chain Gang
  3. Time the Avenger
  4. Watching the Clothes
  5. Show Me
  6. Thumbelina
  7. My City Was Gone
  8. Thin Line between Love and Hate
  9. I Hurt You
  10. 2000 Miles

It’s unfortunate that I have had this album in my library for 30+ years (whether as an LP or a CD) and yet only got around to publicly celebrating it in 2019. Probably that’s in part because I tend to think of my praise of it as something really best expressed in a one-on-one context (and in which I can not just express but also share/receive impressions), but also I get so drawn into the experience of the album when I play it in full (and sometimes even just playing individual tracks) that I don’t think to pull back out to take stock and do an appraisal of it.

Historically, I have always considered “Show Me,” “Thin Line between Love and Hate,” and “2000 Miles” to be weak tracks that never grabbed me, and the rest of the album has been solidly awesome. I had to reassess “Thin Line between Love and Hate” after Hynde’s pal Annie Lennox covered it for her Medusa compilation album (where it came across slightly more compellingly but still lacked a certain grit as was the case with the original), but regardless of my eventual valuation of either version I have to appreciate the song itself more because of the value provided by cover versions, that of supplying more depth through different perspectives. “Show Me” still does nothing for me, probably because it carries a lyrical address to a child and I find child-related stuff a turnoff but also because it’s just not a particularly good song as my ear receives the recording. And as for “2000 Miles,” I can hear it now and appreciate the weight of its lyrics as Hynde’s personal therapy in processing loss, but dammit the song’s pattern just gets tiresome and stays there despite momentary variations to mark its structure.

OK, with all that kvetching aside, now I can get to the more-important business of raving about this baby. But where to start? Probably with “My City Was Gone,” because that was almost certainly the track that led me to this album in the first place and ensured I’d buy it just to have THAT excellence always on hand to dive into. I may have heard one or another track in general radio play around the time of the album’s first year or two, but I’m pretty sure I must have heard “My City Was Gone” played on my local college radio station (because mainstream radio wouldn’t have done so)…and DAMN does that track have some atmosphere paired acidly with cultural commentary, in spades.

To address things more chronologically, I should then jump to the opening track, which is mighty, mighty, mighty good rock, very much the equivalent of an intense carnival ride complete with deceptively lulling moments just before all hell breaks loose again. My favorite moment is probably the end of the vocal, when Hynde’s voice yowlingly flips/morphs into a snarling harmonica note (how they pulled that off I do not know, but it’s brilliant). That track says “fasten your seatbelts” but then is followed by the almost-mild “Back on the Chain Gang.”

Ah…I belatedly have to add “Back on the Chain Gang” to the short list of weaker tracks—not because it is an inherently weak track but because it was far too radio-friendly for my tastes even at the time (and certainly all these years later). The lyrics are fine, but the music and production doom it, for me.

And that impression is underscored by how the serious energy and songwriting intensity of the opening track is again resumed with “Time the Avenger,” a recording that never fails to thrill me and cause me to stop doing whatever I was up to so I can just stare into its dark and shining core. The sonic moment framing (and somehow psychologically pinned by) Hynde’s line “over the harbor and the city” is, to me, almost unbearably evocative as a paradoxically subliminal touch amid the maelstrom of social commentary here…serving perhaps as a proof that rock can present social allegory without being tediously bombastic (the heavy-handedness being only in the form of the driving and grinding might of the beat, especially as it builds to its climactic end). This is one magnificent track and, like “My City Was Gone,” well worth the price of the album on its own.

That it’s followed by “Watching the Clothes,” a comical and musically rollicking view of the pathetic situation much farther down the socioeconomic ladder, is a hilarious and cathartic juxtaposition I have to chalk up to excellent sequencing on somebody’s part. “Would you like sour cream on your potato, honey?” still cracks me up despite its grim-reality context.

I already tossed “Show Me” aside, so I’m thankfully able to turn to what in the LP context is the kick-off track for Side 2, “Thumbelina.” It carries the energy and power of “Middle of the Road” and “Time the Avenger” and ”Watching the Clothes,” and it sustains their collective voice by telling a personal story from a disenfranchised person who’s taking charge of the bad situation to attempt to reboot things and make a good new start somewhere far, far away from where things were so bad (heading west, to be specific, as one should do if one seeks a better world). Rockabilly it may be, but it’s so exquisitely done that it wraps back around, Möbius-strip-like, to post-New Wave Rock with a dash of Punk, all fueled by an intensely strong woman singing a song of aggressive recovery. Hefty stuff, really…and you can dance your ass off to it, too!

Because I’ve already addressed “Thin Line” (etc.) and “2000 Miles,” that just leaves the unabashedly dark “I Hurt You” to consider. And I bet it’s a track that most people skip because they can’t get into it or find it a sonic mess…but I’m not most people. Although I certainly agree that the audio-overlap treatment of the verses renders them difficult to discern most of the time, and that’s not helpful…and yet it also plays a role in giving sonic voice to the picture the lyrics are painting: a twisted, tormented victim’s perspective, perhaps, perpetuating the victimization by retaliation, all of it playing back upon itself like a badly lit room full of mirrors that the singer keeps stalking, dodging, and punching at.

It’s a pretty goddamned awesome album, overall.