At a time when even titans like the Who’s Roger Daltrey have declared that rock “has reached a dead end,” The Pretty Reckless’s Taylor Momsen still speaks about the genre with evangelical zeal: “Rock ’n’ roll represents freedom,” she says on the phone from Florida before a show in Orlando later that night. “It has no limits. It has no boundaries.” And it’s true that few obstacles have impeded Momsen’s group. By one measure, The Pretty Reckless are the most successful rock band working: When their latest single, “Take Me Down,” topped the Mainstream Rock Chart recently, it marked their fourth No. 1 in four tries, something none of their competitors on that chart had ever accomplished.
Momsen, previously known for her roles in The Grinch and Gossip Girl, emerged as the lacerating lead singer of The Pretty Reckless in 2010. The band’s second full-length, Going to Hell, settled on a winning, if not necessarily original, combination, mingling reverence for the rock canon with the shattering force of bar jukebox jock jams. As a singer, Momsen did more than just acknowledge the grim present—she welcomed it with open arms. “Heaven Knows,” The Pretty Reckless’s first No. 1 in the U.S., includes group shouts of, “we belong way down below.” Pointing out this nasty, inevitable fate opened the door for resistance: “Big man tells you where to go/ Tell ’em it’s good, tell ’em okay/ Don’t do a goddamn thing they say.”
The band’s new album, Who You Selling For, opens in a similar state of a bleak enlightenment—the track, “The Walls Are Closing In/Hangman,” says a lot—but by the time Momsen gets to “Take Me Down,” two songs later, it becomes clear that the first track was a feint, and The Pretty Reckless’s primary interest this time around is in burnishing the classic side of their sound. The single contains a melange of blues references popular in rock between 1968 and 1975, along with notable melodic and percussive nods to the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil.” After that, the references start to gush. “Wild City” comes on like a hard-rock update of Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft,” all trembling guitar and ticking cymbals, while the opening line—“It’s that time of the season, when the blood runs hot”—adapts the beginning of the Zombie’s 1968 hit “Time of the Season.” Another tune, “Mad Love,” was penned as a tribute to David Bowie. “I wrote that right after Bowie passed,” Momsen recalls. “I was very very devastated by that.”
Who You Selling For is not a half-hearted homage: While The Pretty Reckless worked with Kato Khandwala, who has produced every one of their albums, they also brought in outside musicians with a very specific pedigree. The easygoing “Back to the River” features slide-guitar playing from Warren Haynes, known for his longtime tenure in the Allman Brothers Band, and three backup singers appear on a pair of tracks to conjure the fuller sound of past decades of rock. That trio includes Janice Pendarvis, who has contributed to records by Sting and Bowie, and who also appeared in the Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom.
“For the first time we brought in live musicians so we could get that live feel instead of having to overdub a keyboard later,” Momsen explains. “It took songs to a whole new place. A good example is ‘The Devil’s Back.’ That was originally going to be two minutes. But we were all playing together live, and it felt good. We just kept playing, and now it’s one of the longest songs on the record.”
“Today everything is done in the box, in the computer,” she adds, echoing a complaint that’s hurtled through the rock world for decades. “Everything’s manipulated, everything’s lined up so it’s literally perfect,” she continues. “I think you lose the human element. The reason the classic records sound so great is that they didn’t have the ability to fix everything, overdubs, autotune, any of that shit.”
The success of “Take Me Down” seems to vindicate this old-school approach. “It’s fucking crazy,” Momsen says. “That’s four No. 1s. But she confesses to having “no idea” why The Pretty Reckless’s songs resonate. “I can say it’s the most rewarding feeling in the world when you finish a good song and you can play it all the way through and go, ‘check this out.’ There’s no greater feeling. Then you fall back down the rabbit hole—‘Fuck, I have to do this again.’ We don’t feel outside pressure. We put the pressure on ourselves.”
But in the messy world of rock ’n’ roll, where mistakes take on a beauty of their own, Momsen has a safety net—she doesn’t have to get every part of a song right, adding: “Imperfection [can] be the thing that makes it perfect.”