Who (2019)

The Who released a new album recently, simply title Who.   This is their first release of new songs since Endless Wire (2006).

Endless Wire had interesting moments but after a 24 year wait for new material, I found it unsatisfying.  It was a song-cycle I didn’t really understand or care much about.

In recent years, the Who have undergone a revitalization, a multi-year tour celebrating their 50 years.  What was a quartet, has long been a duo.  Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend remain, a combative, but appreciative partnership, that almost seems to work best when they aren’t together.  About the only time they spend together is on-stage.  They don’t stay in the same hotel on tour and barely see each other.  Their new album was recorded on different continents.  The album consists of songs written by Townshend except for “Beads on One String” and “Break the News.”  Townshend recorded the music and uploaded the music files to Daltrey, who recorded his lead vocals.   Then Townshend finished it up.  They were never actually together.  One might think a musical production like this would be flirting with disaster.  The Who have usually flown by the seat of their trousers, so why not now?

The resulting album is anything, but a disappointment.  It is a wonderful collection of songs.  These guys sound better than they have for 40 years, bristling with energy, smartly written songs and spirited vocals.  Granted, this ain’t Who’s Next, but what is?  The magic of Who’s Next and Quadrophenia is gone forever.  That being said, Who is pretty darn good for a couple of geezers.

The songs:

“All This Music Must Fade” 3:20  If there is a Who-style, this is it.  Slashing guitars, roaring Daltrey vocals, seductive chorus, bouncy melody.  Nice Townshend guitar solo, something he doesn’t show off much these days.  You can almost imagine this song on Who Are You?, the last really good Who album.

I don’t care
I know you’re gonna hate this song
And that’s fair
We never really got along
It’s not new, not diverse
It won’t light up your parade
It’s just simple verse

All this music will fade
Just like the edge of a blade
All this music will fade
Just like the edge of a blade

“Ball and Chain” 4:29  Townshend re-wrote this song from a 2015 version.  “Down in Guantanamo, we still got that ball and chain.” Townshend is not hesitant to air his politics.  It’s a smokin’ hot song.  Townshend layers the song in guitar tracks, something else he hasn’t done lately.  He’s all the way in.

“I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” 3:54  A very reflective song about their journey.  Daltrey sings passionately. He may not hit the really high notes anymore, but he has more bottom-end in his vocal register. He can still rock.  Another song that soars.

He was drunk, I was blind
Though we tried to be kind
I was sunk, always late
We were quick to rotate

Let’s be blunt, I was a bluff
And the surreal life was tough
I was a runt, we told lies
But to our great surprise

All the shit that we did
Brought us some money, I guess
And those snotty young kids
Were a standing success

“Detour” 3:46  At first, I didn’t care for this song.  I didn’t hear anything special in it, but it’s grown on me.  It reminds me a bit of “Athena,” the jaunty melody and shift of time signature.

“Beads on One String” (Pete Townshend and Josh Hunsaker) 3:40  One of the top tracks on the album, a medium tempo ballad.  It’s nice to hear both Townshend and Daltrey sing on the choruses.  One of the nicest melodies Townshend has produced.

“Hero Ground Zero” 4:52  Nice to hear the strings in the background and the crashing guitars punch the song along.  Townshend is back to writing songs that demand to be heard, not the operatic works that don’t give you songs that hand in the noggin wanting to be played again.  Another song that sounds like it could have been on Who Are You? The drums and bass playing are exquisite on this album, full of brash and leading sounds, that roughness that gave the Who this distinctiveness.

You raised me up and then you dropped me
I drank and sank, absurd and stoned
I was adopted by the angels
They said my future was postponed

I was a hero, ground zero
I believe my stock has been thrown
I was a hero, ground zero
I’ve had the shock of being dethroned
Of being disowned

“Street Song” 4:47 Daltrey is on fire with this song, his vocals cruise the top of his ability and he delivers.  Townshend offers up half a dozen different guitar tracks.  This song is great coming from two 70-plus year olds.  Listen to this song if you wonder whether this band has any gas left in the tank.  Fuck yes.

“I’ll Be Back” 5:01  Townshend on lead vocals.  At first, I thought, what the hell is this?  Did Paul McCartney sneak a tune on the album?  It’s a bit sappy, MOR, fluff.  After a couple times through, it sort of grew on me.  If you get into a time capsule and go back to the mid 1970s, you would find this song an album by Player or Toto.  It’s not that bad, but it does change the momentum of the album.

“Break the News” (Simon Townshend) 4:30  The best song on the album, a driving, bouncy song of great melodic delight.  Written by Pete Townshend’s younger brother, it’s a wonderful vocal performance by Daltrey.  It’s a folk-rocker.

“Rockin’ in Rage”  I could imagine this on The Who By Numbers, it has that gritty, acoustic feel to it.  This song has loud, distorted guitar in the choruses, then it feels jazzy, with the piano and bass stand out in the quieter moments. Just close your eyes and you can hear the old Who in this song.

“She Rocked My World”  This feels like “Rockin’ in Rage, Part II” with the piano and floating bass line. Daltrey tests his vocal flexibility on this song, a driving, jazz shifting to near flamenco guitar rhythm.  There are no slashing guitars and Daltrey dials down his voice, which is quite tricky. This one comes out of left field. Quite interesting.

You hear people say
She rocked my world
They don’t mean it the way I do
They seem that they mean it
Like some dumb cliche
But for that certain girl
It’s totally true
She rocked my world

In a way, this is almost a Townshend solo album.  Townshend and producer Dave Sardy assembled the musical tracks, using a variety of musicians including their touring band, plus other like Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers).

 

The deluxe edition of the album contains three additional tracks, with Townshend on lead vocals.

“This Gun Will Misfire”  Townshend continuing his smoking jazz/rock rhythms.  References to Charlie Wilson, nukes and drones.  Townshend gives himself a great canvass to paint.

There’s a message in Afghanistan
Opium wins their trust
Charlie Wilson, the communists
They hate to take a loss

Kings may live, lose their thrones
They’re junkies on the wire
You can warn the south with nukes and drones
That gun will misfire

“Got Nothing to Prove” What could be the theme to a 1960s adventure film.  Where did this come from?  A cross between the Herman’s Hermits and Their Satanic Majesties Request.

“Danny and My Ponies”  A folk ditty by Townshend that starts simply on acoustic guitar, then adds fiddle and simple percussion, and finally a programmed drum beat.

 

I wish the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Kinks and Clapton were as ambitious and spirited as the Who with this album.   If this is the Who’s coda, it’s a high note.


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