Not long after New York rockers The Pretty Reckless released their third album, 2016’s bluesy ‘Who You Selling For’, the quartet – lead vocalist Taylor Momsen, guitarist Ben Phillips, bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins – were hit by the first of two tragedies that they would come to face.
In May 2017, while Momsen and co. were on tour with grunge pioneers Soundgarden, the latter band’s frontman Chris Cornell heartbreakingly took his life after a gig in Detroit. Then, 11 months later, The Pretty Reckless’ longtime producer Kato Khandwala died in a motorcycle accident. They retreated and created an album on which they explored their grief.
The result is ‘Death By Rock And Roll’, an album that, although sombre in context, does not see them aim for subtlety. This is a theatrical hard rock spectacle that dishes out plenty of hand-horn moments, but curiously little introspection. On ‘Rock And Roll Heaven’, Momsen wails “Freedom found me / When I first heard the Beatles sing” with unwavering sincerity, later turning her attention to Pink Floyd: “In rock and roll Heaven / The great gig in the sky…” These lyrical whims are silly but loveable at the same time; the song is audacious and free, much like ‘Broomsticks’, a spooky 51-second ditty about “broomsticks” and “cauldrons” that wouldn’t be amiss in an offbeat Tim Burton movie.
The acoustic ‘Standing At The Wall’ is similarly cartoonish, the song’s alluring power chords creeping towards the inspired songwriting of The Pretty Reckless’ previous chart-baiting hits (such as 2013’s ‘Heaven Knows’). And then Momsen sings “A lot of la di da da das when we were young / With no memories to weigh us down / And life was fun”, a rare, tantalising peek at the person behind the persona.
Momsen displays incredible vocal control throughout the record – her delivery is invariably the best thing about ‘Death By Rock And Roll’. ‘And So It Went’, a raw and energised collaboration with guitar god Tom Morello, is delivered with snarling intensity; the semi-autobiographical ‘25’, a rousing number that explores the singer’s lifelong idolisation of troubled rock heroes, amps up the drama of her resilient voice.
Still, it’s a challenge to come away from ‘Death By Rock And Roll’ with much of a sense of who The Pretty Reckless really are. A pastiche of their epic rock ambitions? Something deeper? It’s that tension that frustrates and fascinates.
Release date: February 12
Record label: Fearless Records