It's been 20 years since the release of Chrissie Hynde's career-making debut, "Pretenders," but there are moments on "!Viva El Amor!" -- the band's new album -- when you'd swear it was 1979 again and Hynde was in full majestic-snit throttle. "Why did you send me roses? Save them for someone's death!" she sneers on "Baby's Breath." And the hard, careening rocker "Legalise Me," with its buzzing guitars, stuttering drums and Hynde's snarling/cooing threats and boasts, sounds like Side 1 of "Pretenders" crammed into a blender with the dial turned to "whip."
"!Viva El Amor!" is the Pretenders' first release since 1994 and the band's (oh, OK, Hynde's) most focused and cohesive effort since "Learning to Crawl" a decade earlier. It confirms, once again, that Hynde still does Hynde better than disciples like Shirley Manson and Liz Phair. More important, the not-
On "!Viva El Amor!" Hynde, original drummer Martin Chambers and guitarists Adam Seymour and Andy Hobson demonstrate that there's plenty of life left in the band's jangly, tough-tender pop, particularly on the ridiculously catchy "Nails in the Road" and "Baby's Breath" and the shimmery "Human." On "Human," a non-Hynde composition that she performed over the opening credits of the defunct ABC drama series "Cupid," Hynde's creamy voice quavers as she drops her guard in hopes of saving a romance. "I'm not made of brick/I'm not made of stone/but I had you fooled enough to take me on .../I'm only human on the inside." Hynde's vulnerable singing places "Human" comfortably alongside such Pretenders wounded-heart classics as "Talk of the Town" and "Back on the Chain Gang."
For all her nods to the past, Hynde does head off in some surprising new directions. Maybe it was a bad idea for Hynde to conjure her inner Zeppelin amid the "Kashmir" strings on the plodding (and aptly titled) "Dragway 42." But when she sings Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodriguez's "Rabo du Nube" in Spanish, backed by delicate folk guitars and accordions, it's like an old friend offering you a glimpse of an inner life you never knew she had. And on the choruses of the slow-burning soul ballad "One More Time" (one of six tracks written by Hynde solo), Hynde hits startling, soaring, passionate high notes she's never even attempted before.
But the most affecting track on "!Viva El Amor!" is its closer, Hynde's "Biker." On this densely layered love song, Chambers and bassist Hobson offer up a rhythm track that sounds like a slowed-down, stately version of the drumbeat from "Be My Baby," while the guitars ring and Hynde purrs, "Biker, they tell me you're a dangerous lover/That might be true, but I'd never ride with another."
"Biker" is the Crystals' teen-dreamy "He's a Rebel" sung by a woman past 40; it reminds you that 20 years ago, Hynde embroidered the chiming romantic optimism of '60s girl group pop into songs like "Kid," "Stop Your Sobbing" and "Message of Love." Behind her scowl, Hynde has always been human on the inside, looking for true love like the rest of us. On the quietly joyful -- almost prayerful -- "Biker," she sounds as if she's found it.