Almost five years have passed since the music industry last heard from New York City’s leading hard rock poster girl. Barring a few singles released over the course of last year, The Pretty Reckless had flown relatively under the radar since 2016’s Who You Selling For, its third full-length record. If Who You Selling For was the band’s long-winded fade to black, then Death by Rock and Roll, released Feb. 12, is its luminescent rebirth.
This sentiment of new life may go against the release’s very title, but where the 2016 album wallows in repetition and subdued mixing, this fresh senior record presents an elevated focus on vocal and instrumental dynamics. It’s significantly more interesting — a no-holds-barred, harpsichord-driven presentation of anger and gothic worship.
The Pretty Reckless has moved far past its 2010s gritty guitar rock in favor of full glam metal. Death by Rock and Roll holds not only some of the band’s most impressive drumming to date, but also a spirited feature from Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and layered vocals that call back to the Going to Hell era.
Death by Rock and Roll hits the ground sprinting, spinning chaos in motorcycle crashes and shotgun blasts with the titular track. Lyrics describing the death of a person named Jenny stand out line by line, potentially referencing lead singer Taylor Momsen’s innocent role as Jenny Humphrey in the original “Gossip Girl” series. Portraying a past life for Momsen, the track seems to once again lay to rest any ideals and pressures the frontwoman grew away from when exiting her acting career, a consistent theme in the band’s work.
The opener is followed closely by “Only Love Can Save Me Now,” an homage to ‘90s grunge, fitting for an album partially recorded at London Bridge Studio in Seattle. The song guest-stars Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron and Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, fully revealing how Momsen’s vocals can truly dazzle if her backing instrumentals are always this strong. The seasoned musicians stand out, yet display an obvious harmony, making for one of the most skillful tracks in the band’s repertoire.
The album as a whole somehow feels inspired by My Chemical Romance and Joan Jett all at the same time, and it’s clear that The Pretty Reckless lost absolutely none of its gothic appeal over the hiatus. “25” is a ghostly track; the added military drums and tolling chapel bells ooze mystery and melodrama. But the song’s lyrical countdown borders on hokey theatricality, as do the narratives in “Witches Burn” and “Rock and Roll Heaven.”
Throughout Death by Rock and Roll, Momsen incessantly reinforces the fact that she is edgy: less Upper East Side and more Evanescence. Her raspy femme fatale vocal range stretches far on tracks such as “My Bones,” but the lyrics themselves still wade into the stereotypical with metal buzzwords droning about beasts, misty mornings and sinning. Momsen’s talents are best served when her lyrics feel genuine without trying to fit into any particular genre molds.
The pitfalls in her voice shine a little too bright on “Standing at the Wall.” Her belts are breathless and thus the notes fall flat, making for a generally uninteresting ballad in comparison to her other emotive acoustic breaks. Momsen does make a refreshing return to her acoustic rock roots with “Got So High,” a song that could very well have been a B-side to 2010’s Light Me Up.
Death by Rock and Roll is not an uplifting listen, but it still shows significant musical growth between The Pretty Reckless’s third and fourth records. The greatest takeaway: Witchy interludes are much smoother to listen to than the seven-minute monsters of records’ past.