The Who Make a Wry and Spirited Return With ‘Who’
For the rock giants that they are, the Who have always had a certain anti-rockstar aspect to their posturing. Just consider their name, along with the fact that they were initially conceived by Pete Towshend as a Gustav Metzger-inspired auto-destructive art project. As it turns out, this has provided the band a useful conduit for their latest album, simply titled “Who.” Reduced to half the band’s founding members, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey offer their first release since 2006’s “Endless Wire” to towering expectations, which Daltrey wastes no time in addressing, professing in his opening lines, “I don’t care / I know you’re going to hate this song.” Considering the risky business that late albums from veteran rockers always amounts to, this is a rather brilliant way to start – a disclaimer of sorts, serving to contextualize any shortcomings that follow as possible gestures of irony. That isn’t to imply that any such gimmickry is necessary; it merely adds to the whole package. “Who” is an album from a legendary band with a wry humor, revisiting classic sounds with a contemporary attitude.
Within moments of the promisingly titled “All This Music Must Fade,” Tonswhend makes it clear exactly who is playing. Moreover, he stays thoroughly in character for the album’s duration. There’s a punchy riff, classic vocal harmonies, and a characteristic rhythm and spirit, all packaged with a clever stratagem, building to an abrupt halt and a mutter of “Who gives a fuck?” The stage is perfectly set, and the band continue with lead single “Ball and Chain,” a reworking of “Guantanamo” from 2015’s “Truancy: The Very Best of Pete Townshend.” The new song beefs up the original, but keeps it quite rootsy in its basic blues structure, channeled via “classic rock” instincts if there ever were such a thing, delivered with a grunting, growling vocal performance especially suited for the aesthetic. One of several hopeful songs for the future, it reminds us, “There’s a long road to travel / For justice to make its claim.” Next, “I Don’t Want to Get Wise” is in many ways what you might expect from a return after all these years – a retrospective look, with plenty of reflection. Leave it to the Who, however, to make their words of wisdom an explicit disavowal of wisdom itself. Daltrey posits, “Let’s admit / My mistakes / Were what triggered my breaks,” in an ode to youthful recklessness and a refreshing disavowal of that unseemly old prudence, delivered with ample verve and gusto, to a mobilizing stomp with a massive, sprawling chorus.
Nods to past work are to be expected in any undertaking of this nature, and “Detour” delivers, both in its titular reference to the band’s original moniker and its undeniable melodic similarities to “Magic Bus.” You’ll know it when you hear it, in the vocal inflections, the guitars, the sprightly rhythm. There’s an outstanding performance from Daltrey, with rather menacing, cheeky, throat-clearing howls, soaring sustained notes, and soulful humming, alongside guitars that riff off his inflections with acknowledging howls and hisses. It’s a work of streamlined classic rock, with all the associate bombast effectively condensed, replete with the band’s famous swirling keys employed at just the right bits for just the right duration. As if repurposing all the contained energy for a different era, Daltrey sings, “We’re all good people / If y’go deep down / But we gotta be in keepin’ / With a brand new age,” leading up to the declaration, “Time for a detour.”
Orchestral arrangements feature prominently on the new record with varying results. “Beads On One String” is one of the less palatable instances, unless your brand of wide-eyed optimism allows for such silliness. The natural trajectory of rock hero resurgence is generally a two-fold path, leading at one end to hard rock demonstrations of virility, and at the other to wistful outpourings that betray an age-specific sappiness. The Who are self-aware and cleverly nuanced enough to generally steer clear of such pitfalls, but they do come precariously close at moments. “Beads” features another grand chorus, readymade for stadium singalongs, and a message of optimism, but the musical treatment does not help the hackneyed lyrics, which come across like kumbaya fodder. At any rate, the sentiment “This can’t go on forever / This war in a ring,” is fair enough, and relevant enough today that it needn’t be original – plus, you were warned on the opening track. And after all, “Gotta bring us together / Like beads on one string,” is an effective way of putting the point across. The strings continue on “Hero Ground Zero,” but now fall into a backdrop of triumphant rock ‘n’ roll urgency, over which Daltrey fashions musings on aging into vigorous pronouncements. The song is an elaborate, bombastic production, fitting its title, full of ringing, distorted guitars and crashing drums
At this point, the band has accrued such momentum that “Street Song” strikes like it’s been long coming. New sounds steadily enter the mix, developing into a circus swirl of spinning sonics, and making for an immaculately layered song. Daltrey echoes the sentiment of “I Don’t Want to Get Wise,” recalling, “Simple fact: we stood to fail… Then angels spoke: ‘You own this street!’” Inspired by the horrific Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, the song manages to ultimately take an optimistic tone, reaffirming the hope expressed in “Beads On One String.” Not only the lyrical themes but the stylistic stamps too seem to converge in this number, all reaching a new, amplified focus in a climactic moment. In just due time comes a delightful change of pace, with the more bare and hard-hitting, harmonica-laden “I’ll Be Back.” Townshend takes his turn on vocal duties for this number, offering a moment of respite from all the arena-filling bleating, taking on a warm, more intimate tone, and going to town with some sections of vocal processing that are among the album’s most exciting sonic moments. The strings are employed more discerningly here, adding a cinematic feel, and the busy bits are indulged sparingly, with a midsong bit that’s absolute magic. The musings on aging take a more mystical turn here, with Townshend reflecting, “I’ve lived too long, lost so much time… What will survive is my consciousness.”
“Break the News” could be the “detour” mentioned earlier, straying from the sounds typically associated with the Who. This is fitting, as it’s the sole song penned by another writer, Tonshend’s brother Simon. A heartwarming song with intricate, folky guitar work, and an especially catchy chorus, sung with conviction, it sounds – despite songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Wise” – like the product of wisdom, in its cool composure, and implicit aura of gratitude, summed up in lyrics about “watching movies in our dressing gowns.” Yes, this is the same band that once declared, “I hope I die before I get old.” Again, refer to track one. Daltrey gets more explicit yet on the following song, “Rockin’ In Rage,” confessing, “I’m too old to fight / The machetes and blades.” This takes a brilliant turn, however, as jazzy chords give way to full guns-blazing rock frenzy, This will surely be a highlight for fans dying for a good rockout. If the opener were a bit tongue in cheek, this takes the conceit to new heights, as Daltrey narrates along to the jolting rhythms and guitar heroics, “My bones disengage / They splinter and crack… Defying the clock / In one last rampage… I’m rockin’ in rage.” It couldn’t have been more masterfully executed. To pan out from all the frenzy, the band close with “She Rocked My World,” a song as short and sweet in its subject matter as you might expect from its title. A sonic standout with Spanish guitar stylings unlike anything prior, it’s flowing, serpentine, and understated, with Daltrey’s rasp fashioned into subtler voicings, bringing the album to a graceful finish.
The first song alone could have made it clear that “Who” would be a properly realized album. The band have subverted the stigma of late-career reemergence by dismissing the whole undertaking at the onset, and leaving you to calibrate their degree of sincerity. The ensuing set of songs excavates the band’s signature sounds, and nods overtly to defining moments in their oeuvre, without descending into the self-parody that often characterizes such efforts. They sound like the Who without trying too hard to sound like the Who, which is a greater accomplishment than it may seem. While there are hits and misses, the album is well-rounded overall, with a judicious balance of thrilling classic sounds and new excursions, demonstrated with a special maturity, but one kept in check by the youthful spark that still dominates.
“Who” is available Dec. 6 on Apple Music.