The Pretty Reckless – ‘Death By Rock and Roll’

By Yasmin Brown

It’s been almost four and a half years since we’ve had a new album from The Pretty Reckless – a period of time that has been anything but easy for what might be one of the last remaining ‘pure’ rock bands in 2021. 

To talk about ‘Death By Rock and Roll’ is to talk about the devastation that has rocked the four members of this band – a devastation buried in the foundations of the album, shaping it into what it is today. The death of a best friend and of rock and roll heroes is prevalent throughout, as is the subtle fear of a similar fate lying ahead for the rest of the band. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope to be found here. From the purposeful footsteps making their way across a hard floor in album opener and title track ‘Death By Rock and Roll’, to the soft sounds of a motorcycle exhaust that close out the record in ‘Harley Darling’, you’ll be taken on a journey that’s built of sadness and anger, but also of determination, closure, and unexpected strength. 

Sonically, the band have grown exponentially since the release of their debut album ‘Light Me Up’ in 2010, but since 2014’s ‘Going to Hell’, fans of The Pretty Reckless have become comfortable in the knowledge that they can expect fierce, classic rock with any new TPR release – a sound they can trust. A sound that feels like coming home.

If you’re after more of this comforting yet invigorating sound, you won’t be disappointed, as the title track launches straight into the fiercest of classic rock riffs and front woman Taylor Momsen’s vocals hit you straight in the gut. This track sets the scene perfectly – there are no surprises to be found in this record, just straight up rock and roll. The way it’s meant to be. 

This commitment to rock has seen The Pretty Reckless making some pretty notorious friends over the past few years, three of whom you’ll find featured on this record. ‘Only Love Can Save Me Now’ – a slow burning, sultry number with strong yet subtle riffs – is made all the more magnificent by the appearance of Matt Cameron and Kim Thayii of Soundgarden. This collaboration is particularly significant given that TPR were on tour with Soundgarden when news of Chris Cornell’s suicide broke – one of the events that guided the direction of this record. The track is emotional in and of itself, but understanding the context makes the cracks in your heart open up that little bit wider. 

Luckily, ‘And So It Went’ goes a short way to closing those cracks back up again. The powerful track with a killer beat and catchy as fuck chorus features Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, another iconic name that takes this album to even greater heights with otherworldly riffs played in his signature style. It’s this track that shows us Momsen in a new light, too, as her usually raspy and aggressive vocals become sweet and gentle for just a moment before the track’s indescribable instrumental kicks in and she allows herself to roar once again.

One area where TPR excel is in writing music that conjures vivid imagery – ‘25’, ‘My Bones’ and ‘Broomsticks’ being three perfect examples. The former sounds like death and leaves you with a sense of impending doom as Momsen takes you through the years of her life to date, speaking of depression and hopelessness. It’s only when we reach her teens that the mood brightens somewhat, but the moment you start to take in the lyrics, you realise this hope is false as the death march starts again, not easing up for a second before leading straight into the military march that drives ‘My Bones’. 

While ‘Death By Rock and Roll’ is predominantly built on a base of earth shattering riffs, fierce beats, and solos that will see your wig flying clean off, there are moments of acoustic respite that feel just as rock and roll as anything else The Pretty Reckless have ever written. ‘Got So High’ hits hard with lyrics such as “I was something but now I’m nothing”, leading you unwittingly in an introspective spiral that keeps spinning right up until that respite comes again in the form of ‘Standing at the Wall’, feeding into that feeling of loneliness until the strings kick in and the track builds up to instead leave you with a sense of strength and empowerment.

The album’s two most prominent yet contrary messages come to a head in the final two tracks, ‘Rock and Roll Heaven’ and ‘Harley Darling’. Momsen has been cited explaining that rock and roll has saved her, but at the same time, there is so much loss that comes as a result of the traditional rock and roll lifestyle, and both aspects of this have been tackled head on here. ‘Rock and Roll Heaven’ is a love story; here we learn how Momsen came to find her passion for music as we’re taken on a journey through her childhood, but in the same breath she sings of the 27 club and so many heroes who have now passed. It’s this combination of passion and grief that made Momsen the person she is today, and the track feels triumphant through its melancholy.

Similarly, the album’s closer ‘Harley Darling’ – which directly addresses the 2017 death of the band’s best friend and manager, Kato Khandwala – is fuelled by grief, while simultaneously paying homage to his life. The simple harmonica opening feels serene, suggesting this song was written after having plenty of time to reflect, and the repetitive uttering of “ride away” accompanied by the sound of a motorbike kick starting and its exhaust rippling suggests acceptance and almost a sad kind of happiness that he left this world doing what he loved most. It’s a sad ending to an emotional album, but couldn’t be a more suitable way to bring the record full circle and close off this chapter of the band’s lives.

The Pretty Reckless have come a long way in the last 11 years, and ‘Death By Rock and Roll’ is their most mature and impactful record yet. It tells the story of a band who have been through so much together in a way that showcases a pure kind of talent that is so rarely found in music today. With no consideration for radio play -most songs sit at well over the four minute mark – it’s clear every whim has been embraced, every idea explored to its deepest depths, and the result is a stunningly raw passion project that highlight just what an incredible band The Pretty Reckless are.

YASMIN BROWN

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