Friday, December 13, 2019

Who 28: WHO

Thirteen years isn’t that much of a stretch between studio albums when their previous gap was nearly twice that. Yet Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have been steadily performing as the Who for that duration, and that they managed to agree on songs for a new album is unexpected. Roger called the songs their “best since Quadrophenia.” Considering that this is only their sixth album since then, and one of them was The Who By Numbers, that opinion should be taken as literally as anything Pete spouts only to contradict in his next interview. However, when Uncut magazine agrees with that assessment, it’s best to go in with an open mind.
The album is simply called WHO (yes, rendered in all caps), with nostalgic and iconic artwork by Peter Blake. Pete wrote all the songs, save one by brother Simon and a co-write based on a track he found on SoundCloud. As per his M.O., he painstakingly recorded his demos at great expense, then he brought them to the studio for replication by regulars Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino (as well as such session rats as Joey Waronker and Benmont Tench). Then Roger added his lead vocals on all but one, miles away from everybody else. It should be noted that Roger sounds terrific, particularly over power chords.
There really isn’t a theme to the album, but many of the songs deal with the type of topics you’d expect a well-read septuagenarian concerned with world issues and the power of music to ponder. “All This Music Must Fade” addresses the futility of it all right off the bat, closing with a profane dismissal by Pete, and “I Don’t Wanna Be Wise” confronts the fact that some of the band did indeed die before they got old. In between, “Ball And Chain” is a re-recording of “Guantanamo” from Pete’s recent hits album; Roger must’ve loved it since he really digs into it here. “Detour”, despite alluding to an early name of the band, is a clumsy call for compassion, as is the more tender yet maudlin “Beads On One String”. Killer chorus, though. “Hero Ground Zero” is directly related to Pete’s novel The Age Of Anxiety, which concerns such topics as sex scandals, music nobody understands, and a concert that portends some kind of transformation or doom.
As anthemic as that one is, “Street Song” is even more passionate, inspired by a fire that destroyed a London tower block. Pete takes over for the decidedly adult contemporary “I’ll Be Back”, which could be a love song to either his current partner or even Meher Baba; the harmonica sounds very much like longtime sideman Peter Hope-Evans, though the liner notes say otherwise. Simon Townshend’s “Break The News” is more like ‘90s rock, but Roger per usual gives it his all. “Rockin’ In Rage” returns us to the quandary of aging and relevance, while “She Rocked My World” is extremely low-key, almost Latin, and sounds unfinished.
It’s a strange way to end the album, but diehard Who freaks would have purchased at least one version of the album with three extra tracks, all sung by Pete, and they’re a strange handful. “This Gun Will Misfire” addresses gun control; “Got Nothing To Prove” is an actual mid-'60s demo given a Ted Astley-type orchestral overdub that sounds like the theme to a TV Western; “Danny And My Ponies” is a portrait of a homeless guy who still exudes enough pride to make the narrator feel humbled. (The Japanese market got an extra vintage demo called “Sand”.)
WHO is good, but not classic. Musically it sounds like an expansion of It’s Hard without the dated production. Many tracks begin with one of those circular keyboard things familiar from “Baba O’Riley”, but lots of their songs have done that. Lyrics would have been nice, and what’s with the Autotune? It’s been used ironically by others, but Pete seems to embrace it here on the sparing but glaring occasions that it pops up. Overall, it’s more satisfying than Endless Wire, if a little frustrating, and still better than McCartney’s last album.
Not even a year after its release, the band tried to recoup losses incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the performing arts industry by release a deluxe edition of the album. It included none of the bonuses from the original release, added an unnecessary remix of “Beads On One String” at the end of the disc, and included selections from a predominantly acoustic performance from February 2020 on a bonus disc. It’s entertaining, but doesn’t justify buying the album again.

The Who WHO (2019)—3
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 2019, plus 9 extra tracks

1 comment:

  1. When the opening track kicked in, I was struck at how much better Daltrey sounds than on all of “Endless Wire”. While he doesn’t keep it up, the improvement of the vocals on all the tracks is the biggest surprise. No “In the Ether” on here, fortunately.

    Both the lyrics and the music are less contrived than they were on “Endless Wire”. The production is immaculately crafted. “Ball and Chain” would have been just a bit better if Roger had pronounced “Cuber” correctly, but it’s a good song. “Break the News” does sound more like the contemporary bands my teenager listens to, but it’s catchy. For me, the album also falls down toward the end. Roger’s voice straining through “Rockin’ In Rage”, sends the ironic message that’s it’s futile to do so at his age. The Sting-ish jazz pop of the final track is the low point.

    It's an enjoyable album, but, as with “Endless Wire” there’s always the elephant in the room. It just isn’t The Who without the rhythm section. They were pushing it enough in the 80’s without Moon, but at least with Entwistle, the loopy bass parts were there. Now, the sound is no different than a Townshend solo album. These two albums really should have been credited to Daltrey and Townshend. But I supposed they never would have been released if they were.