There’s always been a rather pronounced sense of awkwardness about The Pretty Reckless in modern rock, in that they’re a band whose rather high-profile spot has been held time and time again, without any sort of expectation to deliver or actually earn it. There’s indeed a lot of heavy lifting done by Taylor Momsen as the face of the band (and let’s face it, the only member anyone actually cares about), but for a career that’s spanned more than a decade, her presence has been isolated as the only bankable asset The Pretty Reckless actually have. They’ve always been a fairly cut-and-dry hard rock band, with the successes of Make Me Wanna Die and Miss Nothing carrying them further than they really should. It’d all be less noticeable if The Pretty Reckless were just another name on the circuit, but pretty much since their inception, there’s been some kind of unwritten pedestal housing them, that this is a band built for bigger things than what their output might otherwise signpost. It’s even more frustrating when there hasn’t been much evolution whatsoever, with a spotty release schedule over the last decade that’s wheezed by without amounting to much of anything. It’s probably enough to dismiss The Pretty Reckless as just not a very good band, but a more accurate conclusion would be a band who just aren’t equipped for the opportunities that have been set out for them outside of their control. They’ve ascended and plateaued in a completely unnatural way, and despite similar amounts of hype drummed up for their new album Death By Rock And Roll, they as a band haven’t moved or changed to justify it.
At the same time though, that’s important context to have to inform the direction of Death By Rock And Roll, where age and experience of the industry has led to The Pretty Reckless’ most authentic album to date. That fast-tracked stardom is sought to be broken down here, and there’s an honesty that’s never been this present in The Pretty Reckless’ work that makes this stand out the most. It’s merely part of an entire package at the end of the day, one which still has the hallmarks of the band’s sound relatively unchanged, but the feeling of a greater overhaul is there all the same. Especially for a band like this who’ve always had a manufactured air hanging around them, it’s good to finally take that step forward, and Death By Rock And Roll largely pays off in what it’s trying to do.
It really is necessary to take it from Momsen’s point of view too; she’s the face of the band, and has the most defined personality within it that Death By Rock And Roll applies to. It’s that sense of maturation on her part where the cracks in the rockstar life begin to show, in how it’s developed and changed with her from a very young age. There’s definitely a weight that manifests both from being in this band from sixteen years old and living in the entertainment industry even before that, and the weariness of 25 and Got So High reflect the persona of a woman who’s just looking to cope among it all. And yet, beneath the shadows of a predatory, unequal music industry and the deaths of both Chris Cornell and the band’s longtime producer Kato, it leads to an album that sounds grown and tired, in the most compelling way. Momsen is certainly a domineering presence who wants to forge her own path despite the obstacles in her way on the title track and And So It Went, but can’t hide how burdened she feels by it all on My Bones, and how much frustration and anger that industry sexism has built up in her on Witches Burn. It’s the most consistently open the band have been on record, and it does suit them, especially given how much Momsen’s throaty scowls and snarls can carry tension and ennui on their own. The tribute to classic rock in Rock And Roll Heaven does a bit ham-fisted among it all, and Harley Darling, even as a way of commemorating their producer and friend, can be something of a damp squib to end the album on, but generally, it’s good to see The Pretty Reckless growing and evolving as a band, and showing more of themselves as people through it.
Musically though, that evolution is less present, though that isn’t really a problem. As slightly generic as it can be, The Pretty Reckless’ sound has always been fine, and it’s no exception here. It is front-loaded though, a natural consequence of having collaborations with Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil and Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello on Only Love Can Save Me Now and And So It Went respectively, and then having both those songs right near the front. It just highlights how relatively ho-hum Turning Gold can be, or how the swaying country-rock of Rock And Roll Heaven isn’t the best part of this band’s wheelhouse to draw from. They’re better when given something with harder edges to work with; there’s a decent amount of heaviness to the title track thanks to some noticeably improved production (even if it’s not quite there all the way through), and even when slowing down for the haunted dirge of 25, the revved-up thunder of My Bones or the blues-adjacent sizzle of Witches Burn, it shows how this band seem to work better against darker, more foreboding soundscapes. Again, that’s definitely a factor of Momsen’s voice and the rather unique timbre that it has, but it also highlights how she isn’t really a powerhouse belter like so many other women in hard rock, and that clears new avenues for greater slow-burns that seem to be embraced on this album. The sonics haven’t really changed – it’s all still characterised by muscular guitar leads and drums that might overpower the bass a bit more than they should – but there’s definitely a cooler approach that’s been taken in how they’re used, and that’s definitely interesting to see. Like with most of Death By Rock And Roll though, it’s a small step; The Pretty Reckless have never appeared that impulsive when it comes to how their music is presented, and even of their most real album to date, that doesn’t look to have changed. But as with pretty much every individual factor here, there’s some sort of advancement made towards something better, regardless of how small, and they do stack up for a much more enjoyable listen altogether.
It’s quite a surprise, all things considered, but seeing The Pretty Reckless undergo real growth and for it to yield most likely their best album to date is pleasant all the same. Even if the radio hard rock tag is still unshakably there, it’s good to see them not falling back or resting on their laurels in the same way as so many others. They’re doing something with it that feels authentic and lived-in, more than ever before, and it’s paying dividends when everything comes together as well as it does. On top of that, the playing is solid, as is the sound, and aiming for something a bit more gripping than just comfort food with a big chorus ultimately implies that Death By Rock And Roll might have more staying power than their work has in the past. If nothing else, this retooled approach certainly will, and it’ll be interesting to see how The Pretty Reckless decide to make use of it going forward. They’ve got arguably their first major win from here, so doubling down and continuing to improve seems to be the only logical move.
For fans of: Halestorm, Black Stone Cherry, Shinedown
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Death By Rock And Roll’ by The Pretty Reckless is released on 12th February on Century Media Records.