Chrissie Hynde proved the bona fides of her Bob Dylan fandom decades ago. She sang “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” with him onstage at Wembley Stadium in ’84 and serenaded him with her own jaw-dropping, gospel-tinged rendition of “I Shall Be Released” at his 30th anniversary concert in ’91. She’s vouched for his born-again years, belting “Property of Jesus” on her solo tours, and she slipped his lilting secular favorite “Forever Young” into the Pretenders’ set list only a few years ago. So an album like Standing in the Doorway, which collects nine Dylan cover songs, must have felt like second nature to her.
The project came together last year after Dylan surprise-released a couple of songs, “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes,” in the early months of lockdown. These songs reminded Hynde of the impact his music has had on her formative years, and they moved her to select some of her favorite Dylan songs and record them with the Pretenders’ lead guitarist James Walbourne as a “lockdown series” of YouTube videos. But rather than reinterpret “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” like masters of warhorses, the pair opted for less obvious fare, including many recordings Dylan made in the early Eighties, allowing Hynde a wider berth to fit them to her voice and character.
On “Sweetheart Like You,” an understated and somewhat sexist song off Dylan’s 1983 LP Infidels, Hynde sings the following lyric plainly as written — “You know a woman like you should be at home, that’s where you belong” — but manages to play up the schmaltz of the chorus, “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” showing she has the upper hand. She also gets the inherent humor of Infidels’ “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” a gorgeously selfish love song on which she sings, “Don’t fall apart on me tonight, I just don’t think I can handle it,” in a way to make whoever the song is directed at clean up his act so as not to bother her. She and Walbourne even gave the song an easy, gospel-rock vibe in place of Dylan’s Sly & Robbie–driven reggae rhythms, which fits the way she handles the patter better than a straight cover.
When she approaches the breakup drama of Blood on the Tracks’ “You’re a Big Girl Now,” she replaces the jazziness of the original with Stonesy acoustic guitar and sings the lyrics with knowing sarcasm. Even better, her “whoooaa” breaks in the chorus sound sultry rather than pained, the way Dylan sang them, and she replaces the harmonica solo with church organ.
Her take on “Standing in the Doorway,” a moody standout from Dylan’s 1997 comeback Time Out of Mind, retains the ethereal, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” throwback vibe of Dylan’s recording but on her own terms. She draws a deep breath before singing, “You left me standing in the doorway crying under the midnight moon,” in a way that shows true apprehension, and her personal expression heightens the cover. And it’s the way she parses the words of “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” and lines like “If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time, then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all,” with just a backdrop of acoustic guitar and woodwinds in a way that makes it a fitting lockdown anthem.
The best rendition here is “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan’s brooding Infidels outtake, which ties America’s history of slavery with America’s music, the blues. Walbourne plays piano, harmonium, acoustic guitar, and mandolin on the track in a way that captures the seriousness of the song without letting it drift into melodrama, while Hynde deftly navigates the horror of the vocals with a voice that falls somewhere between weeping and sighing. It’s also one of the prettiest recordings she’s ever made.
What’s most striking about Standing in the Doorway is how easy the recordings came to Hynde and Walbourne. The Pretenders have always been underrated covers artists, going back to their first single, a cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” and Hynde has always had a rare knack for figuring out what she has in common with the soul of song and playing that up. When you add in the fact that she and Walbourne had a little extra time to make the record during lockdown, that they realized that tomorrow didn’t have to be so much of a long time and that they could find comfort in Dylan’s works, it seems Dylan was right: lonesome means nothing at all.