57th & 9th (Interscope)
Listening to 57th & 9th is like joining your pretentious, albeit charismatic, uncle in his drawing room for a dram of some unfamiliar cordial. Uncle Gordon’s in a yearning mood: for belief; for artistic potency and the burn of adulation; for fallen geniuses and lost lovers. He was, indisputably, a rock star—the leader of a blond tripod universally beloved 30-some years ago.
57th & 9th is not Sting’s return to rock, as some maintain. At its most forceful, it’s adult-contempo swill pumped up by producer Martin Kierszenbaum (Keane, Lady Gaga), who mistakes a punishing snare sound for vitality. Even “Pretty Young Soldier,” a would-be Anglo ballad replete with swords, muskets and “the king’s shilling,” is plagued by ersatz rock textures. But a pair of spare acoustic numbers find Sting comfortable in his voice, tracing a haunting melody on “Heading South on the Great North Road” and delivering a genuinely touching lament for slain journalist James Foley on “The Empty Chair.” As much flak as he took for that lute album, Sting might do better to ditch the coliseum and go full coffee shop.
As the Vietnam fiasco roiled America, David Crosby’s proclaimed contribution was keeping his hair long—so pardon the pun, but as a political artist, he never cut it. Indeed, the clunkiest track on Lighthouse is the most pointedly dogmatic—the vague, agitated “Somebody Other Than You.” And while it might seem wiser that Crosby plumb the personal—as he does on much of Lighthouse—he has an unfortunate penchant for stock natural imagery: lots of sky, sea, wind, fire, etc. It’s as music that Lighthouse communicates intimacy most successfully. Several tracks are solo pieces, and most others add unobtrusive layerings of bass, piano, organ and backing vocals—while a slide guitar solo on “The City” is well-executed, it shakes the prevailing hush.
And the prevailing hush on Lighthouse is actually worth preserving—Crosby’s soft voice sounds remarkably similar to the denim dreamer of “Guinevere.” And while never a virtuoso, Crosby is still a creative guitarist with a knack for finding places for meandering vocal melodies to rest, as heard on “The Us Below” and “Drive Out to the Desert.” It’s almost déjà vu.
When The Pretenders burst on the scene in 1980, Chrissie Hynde appeared instantly archetypical—classic yet utterly original. The tough, vulnerable rocker in black leather and masklike eyeliner wanted your attention, but played hard to know. As Alone suggests, she’s holding steady. The piano-fueled title cut stomps like a sped-up “Werewolves in London” as Hynde evokes a bemused Iggy Pop, interjecting “Yeah, I like it! I like being alone. …Life’s a canvas and I’m on it!”
Alone might also reference the absence of drummer Martin Chambers, the last holdover from the classic Pretenders albums. Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) has put together a crack team of Nashville cats (plus legend Duane Eddy, who shines as “Never Be Together” slips from a Stax-y intro to a slinky ’70s groove). Hynde sounds vital throughout, and if Alone resembles an assembled catalog of rock ’n’ roll tropes, it’s assembled expertly. And Hynde ends with the biggest surprise: the infectious, synth-driven ripper “Holy Commotion.” Alone will never be the starting point for The Pretenders, but it gives plenty reason to hope it’s not the ending.