The tone of Pete Townshend’s interviews had been that everything in music has been done, and rock is dead. But it was a thrill to be able to say that his own work contradicts him. Certainly, some of WHO, the band’s 12th studio album, released on December 6, 2019, was pleasingly familiar and exhilaratingly nostalgic. But other tracks, equally excitingly, had The Who sounding as never before.
Wisdom, perspective and humor
It had been 13 years since the band’s remaining core of Townshend and Roger Daltrey last convened in the company name, and while 2006’s Endless Wire contained moments of sublime glory, there were times when it felt somewhat obligatory. Nothing could be further from the truth on WHO. It may or may not be the band’s final testament as an album, but either way it was a brilliant treatise on how the older rock g-g-generation can not only remain relevant, but impart a wisdom, perspective and humour that would have startled their younger selves.
Resplendently contained within its Peter Blake-designed visual flypast of a cover, the record roared from the traps with “All This Music Must Fade”. One of the three opening tracks that previewed the set as what we once called singles, it was the first signal that, if you’re going back to the well, you might as well have a proper drink and enjoy yourself. It was aggressive (“I know you’re going to hate this song”) but playful, especially in its open embrace of the lyrical metre of “The Kids Are Alright.” It was also early confirmation that, throughout the album, Daltrey was in the vocal form of his life.
“Ball And Chain,” previewed when The Who played Wembley Stadium in July 2019, is a rumbling, grumbling indictment of “that pretty piece of Cuba,” the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Then came the vividly melodic “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise,” on which Townshend ruminated about not dying before he got old, how success was a surprise but shouldn’t have been, for those “snotty young kids,” and about the improbable acquisition of a certain sagacity. Here and often, the guitarist, with co-producer Dave Sardy, blended contemporary production touches with synthesizer nods to the Who’s Next era.
A brave triumph
The percussive “Detour” had Daltrey alternately growling and coaxing on a song that Townshend described during its creation as being “about men needing to find new routes…to reach a decent but still honest way to approach women in our lives and our business.” The essential symbiosis between vocals, guitar and John Entwistle and Keith Moon’s erstwhile magnificence in the engine room is stirringly recreated via the invigorating contributions of Pino Palladino and Zak Starkey.
The gentle, understated elegance of “Beads On One String” housed an apparent anti-war call, with Townshend’s arrangement and lyric for music by Josh Hunsacker, an artist he discovered on SoundCloud. “Hero Ground Zero” (also debuted at Wembley) was an archetypal Who anthem underpinned by their unrivalled use of opulent orchestration, while Daltrey soared again on “Street Song,” with Townshend’s distinctive harmonies and wonderful guitar textures.
Then, perhaps the five most extraordinary minutes on the whole album, and a track quite unlike anything The Who have ever recorded. Townshend, rarely given to overt expressions of love in song, lays his emotions on the line for all to hear on “I’ll Be Back,” which opens with a beautiful harmonica motif and blossoms into a gorgeous declaration of devotion, with not an electric instrument in sight.
“In this life you’ve so blessed me, why would I want to get free?” he asks. “I’ve been so happy loving you.” In one of the most arresting lyrics Townshend has ever written, he faces his mortality square on (“I must accept I might be finally dying”) with an assured serenity, as he pictures returning to his lover in the next life. With clearly Auto-Tuned vocals and its air of sophistication, some Who diehards might hate it, but others will hear it as a brave triumph.
A record of true humility and intelligence
Far from feeling a need to reach any rocking conclusion, the album continued with the almost poppy “Break The News,” another relationship song with the protagonists “watching movies in our dressing gowns like we were 24, or thereabouts.” Once again, they’re contemplating their age, but feeling no different from when they were young.
“Rocking In Rage” looked like a quintessential Who title, and built into something more robust, with some classic chords, but still an episodic and pensive aura. There was one last surprise with “She Rocked My World,” Daltrey close-mic’d and tender on a Latin-flavoured finale.
An album, then, of no concepts, no overarching theme and only one track that even made it to five minutes in duration, WHO is also a record of true humility and intelligence. It may have been 2019’s most surprising album, and it was certainly one of the year’s best.
WHO is out now. Buy it here.