Known Johnson

November 2, 2006

The Who: Endless Wire

Filed under: Music — Tom @ 11:54 am

“We got a hit.” Mostly.

You can argue as much as you want whether it’s The Who, or, as Roger Daltrey is fond of putting it, Who2, or as some have jokingly said, “The Two,” or should have been a Pete Townshend album or should have simply been called Townshend/Daltrey, but the fact remains the same: Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have recorded and put new music out together again after 24 years of not doing so.

And it’s not your old Who, either. It’s not The Who of Who’s Next or Tommy or really even Quadrophenia. Was anyone really even expecting that? What Endless Wire presents is the “mature” Who that emerged during and after Quadrophenia, the one that really began its life with The Who By Numbers and, for all intents and purposes, ended with It’s Hard. A kinder, gentler Who, maybe, a bit more thoughtful and pensive rather than wound up and destructive.

With any mention of The Who comes cries that the band died when drummer Keith Moon died in 1978, but the reality is that The Who that people loved was already long gone. It’s easiest to tell by the evidence left in the wake of Moon’s passing – Who Are You, the final album with Moon, is a far cry from the rancorous band that tore up stages earlier in the same decade, but the band hadn’t been that crazy, riotous institution it had been, at least musically, for at least a couple of albums. Moon’s death, while a tragic blow, was not the end of The Who’s wild days that many want to think it was. The Who had already been winding down for a few years.

With powerhouse bassist John Entwistle now gone, too, it’s easy to see how some long-time fans might have a hard time accepting anything new under the old Who moniker. But with an album of songs this accomplished, it’s hard to hold too much of a grudge against survivors Townshend and Daltrey for opting to use the old name. It may have been more respectable to go out as a duo, but it certainly doesn’t pack the same wollop as saying “We’re The Who.”

That’s not to say that everyone’s going to be convinced that this is The Who. There are more shades of Townshend’s solo career than of his old band here, aside from obvious and questionable nods to “Baba O’Riley” in album opener “Fragments.” And there are theatrical elements that Townshend certainly would like to have pulled off with The Who but they wouldn’t have let him when all four were alive, such as the unintentionally comical vocals of “In The Ether,” where Townshend attempts to channel Tom Waits (and fails, miserably,) and the overly emotive and, again, oddly sung “Trilby’s Piano.”

But then there are songs where the spirit of the old Who shines through, such as on “Fragments” (after that “Baba”-derived opening, that is,) the “Who Are You”-ish “Mike Post Theme” (there’s some fun irony there – a song about the man responsible for a huge number of TV theme songs sung to a song that sounds a lot like a song that is now a theme song for a very popular TV show,) “Endless Wire,” “It’s Not Enough,” and the beautiful “God Speaks of Marty Robbins” and album closer “Tea & Theatre” that mark a return of Townshend going the simple, acoustic route as he did so perfectly with By Numbers‘ “Blue, Red, And Grey.”

Townshend saved up all the old anger and spite he used to channel into the old Who songs for one song in particular: “Man In A Purple Dress,” a vicious attack on the hypocrisy of religious figures who use their status to position themselves as leaders of the powerless. It’s this Townshend that we haven’t heard in decades – and maybe never with quite this much unrestrained wrath, funneled through an equally revved up Daltrey, whose vocals here make the album’s finest moments.

It’s a shame, then, that the “mini-opera” that has been so touted with this album, Wire & Glass, is such a let down. Why it’s called out as such is also a mystery – it’s seeds are sown early in the album, as “Fragments” and “In The Ether” play into Wire & Glass, but fall far outside of the self-contained opera.

The opera, itself, fails simply because it feels self-conscious, contrived, and hasty. While it picks up a storyline begun with Townshend’s 1993 solo album, Psychoderelict, one would be hard-pressed to decipher what exactly the story here would be. But that’s not it’s real problem – the story behind concept pieces is by far the least concerning element. What’s really the problem is that there is little flow. The best pieces stand on their own – “Unholy Trinity,” “Endless Wire,” “We Got A Hit,” and “Mirror Door,” but the linking material hardly feels complete and only tenuously ties them together, but its worst sin is that it feels terribly rushed, like an incomplete thought.

While Endless Wire isn’t a perfect album, it is by far the best Who album in three decades, and one of Townshend’s best works in that time as well. The stumbles of its mini-opera aren’t enough to knock it down, either, as the album’s highs are far superior to its fortunate few lows. The album’s proper end (because the disc truly concludes with two extended takes on “We Got A Hit” and “Endless Wire,”) “Tea & Theatre,” hints that this may be the true end of The Who, making this album a much more fitting closing note than the somewhat sour It’s Hard:

“The story is done – ‘s getting colder now
A thousand songs – still smoulder now
We played them as one – we’re older now.”

And if this is just the first part of a new chapter in the story of The Who? One can only hope they’ve got it in them to keep up the same quality for future projects – or know that it was best to leave Endless Wire as a solitary last note in the The Who’s canon.

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