Artist: The Who
Released: December 6th, 2019
Highlights: All This Music Must Fade, Ball and Chain, Hero Ground Zero, Street Song, Break the News
It may be jarring to some, but fans of The Who – particularly those who are familiar with Pete Townshend’s personality and its unique blend of insecurity, arrogance, and dangerously honest rhetoric – will not be too surprised when they realize the band’s guitar player and songwriter opens the group’s twelfth album by penning a review of his own. Sung by Roger Daltrey, the first verses of “All This Music Must Fade” claim that “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”. It is a great, but obvious, defense for a man who – well into his seventies – knows that any music he produces at this point will be compared unfavorably to his classics of the past; and it is also a perfect description of what many people will feel regarding “Who”. Yet, the statement is not entirely accurate.
Townshend is correct when he says that the batch of eleven original tunes in the album is not new, diverse, or structurally challenging. Likewise, it does not take the knowledge of a music business insider to confidently state that the tracks of a The Who record released in 2019 will not light up any parades. He is probably lying, though, when he says he does not care. As much as the public’s perception of “Who” will not do much to affect the life a multimillionaire rock star, Townshend has always – accidentally – let the world know he is very much worried about the acknowledgement of his genius, and that is bound not to change. Finally, his immediate disparaging of “All This Music Must Fade” is downright wrong: it is a fantastic tune, one that carries his band’s signature sound whilst being contemporary enough to make it with any kind of crowd.
Although the quality of the songs oscillates as “Who” moves along, that is a description that could easily apply to the work as a whole. In a way, the record is a bit of a miracle; after all, since the band’s last good original product, 1978’s “Who Are You”, more than four decades have passed, and during that period the group was far from productive, releasing two mediocre LPs (“Face Dances” and “It’s Hard”) during the 80s that failed to reconstruct the band following the death of legendary drummer Keith Moon and publishing “Endless Wire” in 2006, a bloated and conceptual piece that diluted some very good musical moments amidst an overwhelming amount of lackluster cuts. However, looking at “Who” from another perspective reveals that its relative success makes sense.
Townshend has always been an excellent songwriter, and not only does “Who” come on the heels of a worldwide tour whose quality proved that, up on a stage, the current incarnation of The Who could still deliver the goods, the album also benefits from the fact it holds no frills at all. “Who” is the result of a well-oiled machine and one of the British Invasion’s brightest composers walking into a studio, doing what they know best, and putting the whole process on a tape. Without a storyline or an overarching message for him to get lost in, and with a very good band operating at high capacity, Townshend succeeds in assembling an enjoyable and straightforward rock album, an artifact that many doubted he was still capable of creating.
As it is the norm with The Who, the operation was not as simple as it looks. Townshend and Daltrey, who have repeatedly stated over the years they were never friends, recorded their parts separately and by using different producers. Nonetheless, it all comes together. Despite the lack of a unified theme, “Who” could be seen as some sort of older brother to “The Who by Numbers”, for while in the latter Townshend’s personal lyrics revealed that a rock and roll hero had come crashing into a mundane midlife crisis (showing such dreaded phase is an inevitability even to those who seem immortal), the former has numerous tracks that deal with old age. Starting with “All This Music Must Fade”, in which the songwriter embraces the fact that everyone eventually becomes irrelevant, regardless of whether they have written their names in the history books or not, the album features several moments when Townshend confronts his wrinkles, going into digressions about mortality, reincarnation, wisdom, and The Who’s own history.
It is a recipe that could be dangerous for a rock album, for the genre was never really favorable to the ramblings of older folks; “The Who by Numbers” itself was – despite its greatness – warmly received in large part because of its tendency to deal with thoughts that appear as the years accumulate. The theme, though, is much safer this time around: Townshend knows most of those who are still listening to him are old as well and, therefore, can relate; furthermore, still showing sings that – at heart – he remains a rebellious punk, he makes it clear he remains ready to fight. In “Rockin’ in Rage”, he mockingly and cleverly summarizes that conflict in the chorus when he says “I’m rockin’ in rage, forward and back / My bones is engaged / They splinter and crack”.
Appropriately, the music of “Who” also exhibits that dichotomy. It is punctually angry and occasionally contemplative. “Ball and Chain”, for instance, is a tense and quietly furious blues track where Townshend gets political, attacking the injustices of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; “Beads on One String” is a ballad showered by lush synthesizers that seems to simultaneously comment on two kinds of war, those that are personal and those that are collective; “Break the News”, written by Simon Townshend, is a gorgeous acoustic stomp; “Street Song” could be the steady soundtrack to a march or a protest; “Hero Ground Zero” is – like the best tunes out of “Tommy”, “Who’s Next”, and “Quadrophenia” – simple but able to muster a gigantic size thanks to a layered arrangement that includes electronic elements and an orchestra; and “I’ll Be Back” is the classic Townshend jab at folk, being honest and filled with personal anguish.
“Who” fails to reach for full excellence due to a few dull moments: “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” starts out promising but could have used a better chorus; “Detour” is playful and bouncy, relating to the band’s R&B origins, but ultimately uninspired; and both “I’ll Be Back” and “She Rocked My World” click as intimate statements but do not nail it as songs. However, there is no denying it is a worthy addition to The Who’s canon: it features tasteful production; it has Townshend being particularly inspired in his signature usage of synthesizers, which invariably enhance the tunes quite a bit; it boasts fantastic vocal performances by Roger Daltrey, whose voice has aged unbelievably well; and it simply contains a lot of notable songs. In the end, the self-deprecating statement that opens the album is nothing but a bluff; Townshend knows that “Who” is good, and most that listen to the album without questioning whether The Who should be making music as of 2019 (a matter that only truly concerns the members of the band and their will) are likely to realize it.