When I first heard a snippet of this one, it was when Grohl appeared on the Moyles show with an acoustic guitar (dialogue highlight: ‘So, I was having a beer with my tea, and-‘, ‘You have beer… with tea?!’). he started playing what he claimed was a track from the forthcoming album, but which initially sounded like he was going to psyche everyone by playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ instead. It turns out that was just the beginning to ‘The Pretender’ and it just happened to have a very familiar arpeggio at the start.
Needless to say I have this song on vinyl (but not the album – the only time I saw it in a shop it was twenty pounds!) and when the snare beat kicks in, a couple of beats before you expect it to, it is loud. And I mean loud in the sense of dynamic swings most (compressed to hell) compact discs just can’t communicate. (For instance, as much as I love the song, the fantastic ‘banks of vocals’ crescendo to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Otherside’ is actually no louder on your stereo than the solo bass intro.)
When this tune really starts rocking, it does so to predictably thrilling effect. Grohl, after testing the waters with some album tracks and then ‘Best of You’, has settled into screaming whenever the volume goes up and that’s fine by me. As per usual, Taylor Hawkins’s drum fills are weirdly visceral for a pop single and really add propulsion to the song.
Structurally ‘The Pretender’ really reminds me of ‘All My Life’, and never more so than after the second chorus when the song breaks back down into quietness (at this point I’d like to mention the brief rock ‘n’ roll Chris Shiflett interludes. They are mentioned). While an effective dynamic device that the band employs on a regular basis – best heard on ‘Everlong’ – it is the creative weak point of the piece. ‘I’m the voice inside your head / You refuse to hear’ is eerily reminiscent of ‘All My Life’s ‘All my life I’ve been searching for something / Something never comes, never leads to nothing’, and you could easily sing one over the other. This becomes more blatant with the ‘Who are you / Yeah, who are you’ section echoing the ‘And I’m done, done and I’m onto the next one’ of the 2002 single.
At risk of turning into Theodor Adorno, this really is a case of pseudo-individualisation, something I will be guilty of when I say at least this single breaks straight down into quietness again instead of just rocking out. Well it does, so I don’t care. As to which song I prefer, I’m not sure. ‘All My Life’ has far better drum patterns (especially in the chorus), and the rock-out bit is stellar. Conversely, ‘The Pretender’ has more emotional impact, and a more involving chorus. It also has one last trick up its sleeve.
While ‘All My Life’ followed its breakdown with a bunch of screaming and an abrupt finish, Grohl this time follows his second quiet bit with a couple of choruses and – this is the best bit – overlaying the verse melody onto the last chorus. As I am a complete sucker for vocal arrangements that attempt something even superficially different, I love this. It’s not quite the end of ‘Midlife Crisis’, but what is?
In all, I feel a tad guilty for loving this song (and band) as much as I do. They are blatantly following a commercially very viable formula to the bank but, at the same time, it’s inordinately entertaining. While I’m all for music as food for thought, there are times when a good song will suffice, which is what this most definitely is. Times, dare I say it, when we learn to live again. Sorry.
BONUS FOOTAGE: The aforementioned ‘Midlife Crisis’. Doesn’t sound fifteen years old, does it?
* ‘No Way Back’ last year, ‘Best Of You’ in 2005, ‘Times Like These’ in 2003, ‘All My Life’ in 2002, ‘Next Year’ in 2000, ‘Learn to Fly’ in 1999, ‘My Hero’ in 1998, ‘Everlong’ in 1997, ‘Big Me’ in 1996 and ‘I’ll Stick Around’ in 1995; missing two years out of thirteen is a pretty good strike rate. This is a proper under-rated band by ‘serious’ music listeners.