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“I don’t care!”

That’s how Roger Daltrey makes his entrance, 12 seconds into the new Who album, simply titled WHO, on a song called “All This Music Will Fade.”

He continues, “I know you’re gonna hate this song/And that’s fair/We never really got along!”

Of course, Daltrey is delivering lyrics written by his bandmate of nearly 60 years, Pete Townshend, who has never been one to mince words. Is Townshend addressing the Who’s fans here? Or is he talking to Daltrey (the two were apparently never in the studio at the same time while recording WHO)?  The chemistry of the Who has changed over the past few decades, due to (among other things) the deaths of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002. But to hear them tell it, Daltrey and Townshend’s relationship has never been better. It’s interesting that, over 50 years into their career, they’d even bother to make an album; they routinely sell out arenas regardless of whether or not they have new material. And it’s even more interesting that they dare the listener to stick with the album, less than twenty seconds into it.

But Townshend has always often been brutally honest: he pulled away the veil of mystery around himself and his artistic process (via his Scoop collections of demos, which he began releasing in 1983). And, of course, the man doesn’t hold back when he talks to the press, either: his recent Rolling Stone interview raised eyebrows and even offended many of the band’s fans, particularly his comments about Moon and Entwistle. “It’s not going to make Who fans very happy, but thank God they’re gone,” he infamously said. “They were f—ing difficult to play with. I think my musical discipline, my musical efficiency as a rhythm player, held the band together. When [Entwistle] passed away and I did the first few shows without him, with Pino [Palladino] on bass, he was playing without all that stuff…. I said, ‘Wow, I have a job.’ With Keith, my job was keeping time, because he didn’t do that. So when he passed away, it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to keep time anymore.’”

In the same interview, he reprised something that he’s said in varying ways, since the band’s first reunion tour in 1989: “We’re not a band anymore. There’s a lot of people who don’t like it when I say it, but we’re just not a f—ing band.”

And yet, that band just released a new album. Daltrey told the same Rolling Stone writer that WHO is their best since 1973’s Quadrophenia. And while fans may argue whether or not it is better than 1978’s Who Are You, it’s certainly superior to their last album, 2006’s Endless Wire and their prior effort, 1982’s It’s Hard. It could surely hold its own in a scrap with 1981’s Face Dances and even 1975’s The Who By Numbers.

Unlike the aforementioned ’70s and ’80s albums, this time around Townshend isn’t divided between the band and his solo career. (His last studio album, Psychoderelict, was released in 1993, the same year Radiohead released their debut album, Pablo Honey…and Radiohead are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s been a long time.) And WHO isn’t dragged down by a weighty concept, as was the case with Endless Wire.

On WHO, Townshend and Daltrey are accompanied by a number of other musicians, including drummers Zakk Starkey, Carla Azar (formerly of Jack White’s band), Matt Chamberlin (who has played with both Pearl Jam and Soundgarden), and Joey Waronker (his credits include R.E.M. and Beck). Bassist Pino Palladino, and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, among others, also contribute to the album. So, is the Who still a “band?”

Townshend can say what he wants about that, but an entity called “The Who” have a pretty solid new album. As is the case with other “legacy acts” — Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, U2, even Pearl Jam — it would be difficult for the band to release an album that makes an impact like the ones they released in their 20s and 30s. There are a lot of reasons for that, and that’s a subject for another feature.

But where Endless Wire and even It’s Hard are albums that you’d be unlikely to turn on, unless you were doing a dedicated binge-listen through the band’s career, WHO is a solid record, even if it doesn’t quite hold up to Tommy or Who’s Next. 

There’s a lot to love here: “Ball And Chain” — a song which Townshend originally recorded as “Guantanamo” for 2015’s Truancy: The Best of Pete Townshend — is a topical modern-day blues-rock jam that was a highlight of the band’s recent U.S. tour. And it’s an interesting case study of just what Roger Daltrey adds to Townshend’s songs: he probably could never have written a line like “There’s a long road to travel/For justice to make its claim/So let’s bring down the gavel/Let the prisoner say his name.” But when Daltrey sings it, he sounds more authoritative and a hell of a lot scarier. Even in 2019, the Who is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Street Song” calls to mind the Who’s disciples in U2: it’s a soaring anthem that features a heroic Daltrey vocal. It’s followed by “I’ll Be Back,” a Townshend-sung love song that recalls late ’70s/early ’80s Stevie Wonder, down to the chromatic harmonica (played by Townshend, not Daltrey).

The album’s highlight is “Break The News,” co-written by Pete Townshend and his brother, the Who’s touring guitarist, Simon Townshend. It shows that both Townshends have an ear for a catchy pop hook, and in the hands of Mumford & Sons or Coldplay, it’s easy to imagine this song as a pop hit.

But “All This Music Must Fade” is also a contender for the album’s best song, and you have to wonder if Townshend really believes that title. In the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview, he marvels at some of the things that he’s said on record: “I find sometimes I’ll be saying things and I think, ‘Do I really feel that, or is my mouth just f—ing with me?’” This is a guy who has been curating his legacy for decades, from the Who’s 1974 collection of outtakes Odds & Sods to his Scoop collections to the copious amount of expanded editions of Who albums and archival live recordings. Does he really believe that “all this music must fade?” Or is it just his mouth f—ing with him?

If his music does fade, it won’t be for a very long time — his catalog and his influence on kids bashing away at guitars will surely outlive the man. And WHO has provided a few more songs to a discography that lives at the highest echelon of pop and rock music from the 20th century.

So, if you’re a Who fan and you take the time to listen to this album you’ll probably find yourself disagreeing with Townshend: you probably won’t hate these songs, and you might find a few that you love.

 

The Who at Madison Square Garden – 9/1/2019