Two of her band members were dead or dying, but Chrissie Hynde still had a need to express herself musically (plus a recording contract that required her to do so). She started out with a few singles to mark time until a replacement band would come together, and when it did, she successfully pieced together an album from those singles, in a similar fashion as both previous Pretenders albums.
Learning To Crawl doesn’t have the rebellious edge of the first two Pretenders albums, but it does deliver tight rock and roll, tempered with a certain maturity that came as a result of not just the death of her mates, but also the birth of her first child. This fact is pointedly brought up in the climactic verse of “Middle Of The Road”, which opens the album with a drum solo before cascading through an infectious riff and hearty backing vocals. The year-old single “Back On The Chain Gang” had already been a huge hit on the radio and MTV, and taken as something of a tribute to James Honeyman-Scott within her typically evasive lyrics. “Time The Avenger” and “Watching The Clothes” offer opposing views of daily life, the former of a businessman, the latter of someone literally doing her laundry. Her slightly softer side emerges on “Show Me” a rocking lullaby-cum-apology to her baby daughter.
The single mom theme seems to continue through the rockabilly-flavored “Thumbelina”, but a more autographical story emerges on “My City Was Gone”. A remarkably simple song (and the B-side to “Chain Gang”), it effectively updates the concern about urban sprawl originally voiced by Joni Mitchell on “Big Yellow Taxi” with the sad recognition that one can’t go home again. (This was made even more apparent once it got co-opted by Rush Limbaugh, who obviously hasn’t listened to the words.) Apparently not about to do any more Kinks covers, this time Chrissie puts her best aching croon on the obscure Hey Love soul classic “Thin Line Between Love And Hate”. That song’s themes about abusive relationships are reflected somewhat in “I Hurt You”, the weakest track on the album. But the album ends well with the modern Christmas classic “2000 Miles.”
Having survived such losses, it was hoped that the Pretenders would continue to make albums as strong as Learning To Crawl. But by the time the next one came out, drummer Martin Chambers was gone, and even Robbie McIntosh would soon find work with Paul McCartney. For many, this album is where the story ends. Or should have. But that would have gone against her survival instinct.
The Pretenders Learning To Crawl (1984)—3½
2007 expanded, remastered CD: same as 1984, plus 7 extra tracks