It’s become a critical reflex to auto-pan records of new material released by classic rock legends, a seemingly coordinated effort by the music-scribe community to create a unified message of “shut up and play the old stuff!” It’s usually a justifiable knee-jerk: So many acts reunite with dollar signs in their eyes and a diluted pool of talent that the few artists who do make relevant albums in old age– your Neil Youngs, your Tom Waitseses– are miraculous by comparison. Furthermore, there’s something depressing about watching formerly popular bands persevere long past their prime, usually lacking some critical piece of their identity, be it simply youth, hunger, or the drive and courage to create something different.
The Who are more prone to these allegations than most, having famously decried the horrors of being old from their very beginning. Now 20 years past the release of a record called Who’s Last, and four years after the 2002 death of bassist John Entwistle, the band’s continued existence seems feeble on paper. Retaining the group’s two most visible personalities, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, is enough for the Who to remain a viable touring act for as long as they please, but anything new to come out of the group can’t help but be predictable and hollow by this point, right?
Well, would it surprise you if that wasn’t entirely the case with Endless Wire? Obviously the rating up there isn’t gaudy, but it certainly could be far worse for a band that arguably hasn’t produced worthwhile new material since the Carter administration. The first half of the record is everything one fears from a museum-piece band an entire generation past its prime: rehashes of old hits, preachy, creaky acoustic numbers, the noticeable absence of deceased contributors. The second half, on the other hand, throws a bit of a curveball for a band expected to be robotically strip-mining the past, debuting a portion of a new Pete Townshend rock opera that provides fleeting glimpses of the Who sounding remarkably true to their younger selves.
About that first half: It says it all that the lead track and single (if there really is a radio station out there that would play a new Who song), “Fragments”, is full of the same synthesizer arpeggios that grace the recently fashionable “Baba O’Riley”. That the song was produced by the “Method” from the aborted Lifehouse project (scraps of which became Who’s Next) is the kind of trivia that will make the song excusable only to Who fanatics, while casual fans hear a knockoff with about 1% of the original’s massive chorus. Elsewhere, the first half veers between acoustic naps inspired by The Passion of the Christ (seriously) and forced upbeat numbers (the commercial commentary “Mike Post Theme”, and the Fleetwood-Mac glossy “It’s Not Enough”) that sorely miss the rumble bass of “The Ox”, not to mention Keith Moon’s spectacular clatter.
Strangely, all the missing elements and nostalgia-grabs that make the first half of Endless Wire such a sad listen organize themselves into a form that is faintly exciting for the second part, which is comprised of songs from a rock-opera-in-progress called Wire & Glass. This shocking turn of events sorta makes sense; after all, it’s vain for Townshend & Daltrey at 60 to strive for their raucous early days, but the song-cycle heritage of Tommy and Quadrophenia remains within their now limited range.
Focusing on a narrative, confusing as it might be, appears to give the band more purpose and to transmute its new weaknesses into old strengths. Daltrey’s bellow, which sounds silly over the front half’s thinner sound, works better in the service of dramatic material like “Sound Round” or “Mirror Door” (which, like the album cover, hearkens back to the imagery of Tommy more than a little bit). In service to his story, Townshend gets more interesting with his arrangements, like the interwoven piano and guitar of “Unholy Trinity” or the much weirder reprise “Fragments of Fragments”, segueing together mini-songs like a calmer, wiser “A Quick One”.
Is all that enough to save Endless Wire? Again, based on the score, obviously not. But it is a rare, unexpected move from a Hall of Fame band, creditable for being more than the usual Give The People What They Want pension scheme. In most instances, the best case scenario for a reunion album is to justify its existence, to appear as more than just a pointless exercise in career perpetuation. For the second half of Endless Wire, the Who at least meet those qualifications, producing work that adds, if incrementally, to their career body of work rather than just damaging the reputation of their long-ago days.
The Who now playing that song every night are only half the legend that recorded it forty-one years ago: Daltrey and guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend, plus a strong, attuned crew of juniors. But the Two are more of a Who in fight and rapport than anything I’ve seen live under the name since the 1979 tour with drummer Kenney Jones, the year after Keith Moon’s death. And in Endless Wire, the first Who album of new songs since 1982’s It’s Hard, Daltrey and Townshend have made a record as brazen in its way and right for its day as The Who Sell Out and Tommy were in theirs.Daltrey’s voice is deeper and darker now, even in total roar — you can hear the extent to which he has punished it in long service to Townshend’s songs. And it must be said: Bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002, is sorely missed here. His stoic baritone and ghoulish lyric wit were reliable black-humor relief on Who albums, especially when Townshend was at his most conceptual and argumentative.
But this is the only Who left, and at times on Endless Wire, Townshend wields it like an avenging sword. In his liner notes, Townshend says he wrote “A Man in a Purple Dress” after seeing Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Yet it is easier to hear, in the song’s stark ’63-Dylan bite, the public rush to judgment after Townshend’s 2003 arrest for viewing child pornography online. (The charge was dropped.) “You are all the same, gilded and absurd,” Daltrey sings with the same growling rage with which he defended his bandmate at the time. “Black Widow’s Eyes” is literally about a love that kills, inspired by the fatal terrorist siege of a Russian school in 2005. “I fell right in love with you/As the blood came blowing through,” Daltrey confesses, in Townshend’s words, as the guitarist hits snarling power chords against Zak Starkey’s neo-Moon-ish drumrolls and shrapnel-like cymbal spray. The closest thing to a good laugh on the album is “God Speaks of Marty Robbins,” in which Townshend, alone on vocals and guitar, dares to play Him on the eve of creation, looking forward to finishing the job so He can listen to his favorite country singer.
Musically, Endless Wire sounds more like a reinvigorated Who when it sounds least like the thunder-and-lightning band of Who’s Next. Townshend revisits the synthesizer vertigo of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the opening song, “Fragments,” and a later reprise. But the element of hypnotic surprise is gone. More effective is the mix of guitars — Townshend’s treble stabs over a focused bed of strum — in “Mike Post Theme” and “Black Widow’s Eyes.” The result is like the home demos on Townshend’s Scoop collections but with a live-band punch. The guitars are thick and crackling in “It’s Not Enough,” too, while the harmonies behind Daltrey’s controlled bellow are tight and gleaming, as if he’s suddenly landed in the middle of Townshend’s best solo album, Empty Glass.
The mini-opera “Wire & Glass” — which takes up the second half of the album — is an uneven success, a lot like Tommy. For all of the latter’s historic worth, the original double LP was basically one album of pivotal, great Townshend songs and one of the connective pieces that advanced the story. “Wire & Glass” has the same fragmentary quality and its own quixotic momentum. It ends with teatime instead of a bang — the reflective finale, “Tea & Theatre” — and one segment, “We Got a Hit,” is too paltry at 1:18. It is a combined bolt of the Who’s Sixties biff-bang-pow and The Who by Numbers that deserves extra guitars and a few more turns through the chorus. A song about a hit single should at least be hit-single length.
“Wire & Glass” is Townshend’s score of sorts to his unpublished novella The Boy Who Heard Music. It also returns to themes that have consumed Townshend as a composer — technology as a revolutionary force, music as an instrument of spiritual transformation — since 1971, when he abandoned the Who’s production of his multimedia Lifehouse epic for the nine-song concision of Who’s Next. That history has, in a way, repeated itself. The most fully realized “Wire & Glass” songs are simply fine, contemporary Who, regardless of narrative.
The album’s title track is about an Internet-like invention vital to the rock & roll revolt of the opera’s teenage troublemakers. But the country-rock warmth is that of Rough Mix, Townshend’s wonderful 1977 album with ex-Small Face Ronnie Lane. And there is one line in Endless Wire’s “See Me, Feel Me”-like climax, “Mirror Door,” that sums up Townshend’s lifetime pursuit of the nirvana in rock, particularly that of the Who, better than any concept album. “You will find me in this song,” Daltrey sings for him — Townshend’s simple admission that there is nothing better in life than to be music. And he has still found no better way to get there than the Who.
The Who retired following their 1982 farewell tour but like Frank Sinatra’s frequent retreats from the stage, it was not a permanent goodbye.
Seven years later, the band — Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle; that is, Keith Moon’s replacement Kenny Jones wasn’t invited back — embarked on a reunion tour, and ever since then the band was a going concern. Perhaps not really active — they did not tour on a regular basis, they did not record outside of a version of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” for the 1991 Elton John and Bernie Taupin tribute album Two Rooms — but they were always around, playing tribute gigs and reviving old projects, such as a mid-’90s stab at Quadrophenia, before truly reuniting as an active touring band after the turn of the century. Just as they were reaching cruising altitude in 2002, bad luck and tragedy intervened, as Entwistle died from a heart attack on the eve of a summer tour, leaving Townshend and Daltrey the only surviving original members. Their decision to continue performing as the Who rankled some longtime fans — many of whom thought they should have packed it in after Moon’s death in 1978 — but the ensuing tours helped them work through their grief, not only over Entwistle’s death but during the fallout surrounding Pete Townshend’s arrest for accessing child porn on the internet. Townshend was cleared of all charges, and throughout the turmoil of the scandal he had no stronger defender than Daltrey. According to several interviews with both men, the process brought them closer together and they began seriously talking about recording a new Who studio album — something that had not happened since It’s Hard in 1982. They tentatively dipped their toes in the water with a couple of strong new songs on the 2004 hits comp Then and Now, and two years later, they followed through with the long-promised, long-awaited Endless Wire.
Opening with a synth riff that strongly recalls, if not directly quotes, the famed loop underpinning “Baba O’Reilly,” Endless Wire often hearkens back to previous Who albums in its themes, structure, and sound. The “Baba O’Reilly” riff pops up in “Fragments,” the pummeling triplets of “The Punk Meets the Godfather” resurface in “Mike Post Theme.” Like The Who by Numbers, it has its fair share of stark acoustic introspection. Like The Who Sell Out and A Quick One, it closes with a mini-rock opera, this one called “Wire & Glass.” This closing suite also shares a lineage with Townshend’s 1993 solo album Psychoderelict, a record that’s not well loved but one that is connected thematically to Lifehouse Chronicles, his often-muddled yet often-intriguing futuristic rock opera that seemed to suggest portions of a technologically saturated internet age. Such ideas bubble up throughout Endless Wire and not just on “Wire & Glass,” yet that opera specifically shares a character with Psychoderelict in Ray High, a rock star who was the central figure in that 1993 opus and functions as a semi-autobiographical distancing device for Townshend, particularly on this record where the narrative ebbs and flows and sometimes disappears completely. Since the whole of Townshend’s rock operas always were overshadowed by the strength of their individual parts — musically and emotionally, “Pinball Wizard,” “Bargain,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “The Real Me” and “Love Reign O’er Me” carried as great a weight, if not greater, on their own as they did as part of a larger theme — this is not unusual or unwelcome, because the focus turns away from the specifics of the narrative and to the merits of the songs and the Who’s performances, and how they connect at a gut level.
And, like much of the best of the Who’s work, the best of Endless Wire does indeed connect at a gut level, even if it’s in a considerably different way than it was in the past: instead of being visceral and immediate, this is music carries a slow burn. This is partially because they are no longer driven by Moon and Entwistle, but quite frankly, this most manic of rhythm sections never really anchored the Who; Townshend always did with his furious windmills and propulsive rhythms, and there was never any question that this, along with his songs, formed the complex, contradictory heart of the Who, while Daltrey gave the songs both muscle and a commonality, undercutting Townshend’s pretensions — or giving him a voice behind which to hide, a voice to act out his best and worst impulses.
After all the upheaval of the first part of the 2000s, Townshend needed to have Daltrey interpret his songs, which do confront many tough emotions and questions regarding faith, mortality and persecution, albeit often in oblique ways. For a writer as obsessed with concepts and fictionalized autobiography as Townshend, obliqueness serves him well, and often turns out to be more revealing than blunt confessionals, as is the case with “A Man in a Purple Dress,” a searing, bitter, anti-religion folk tune reportedly inspired by a viewing of The Passion of the Christ but unmistakably bearing echoes of Townshend’s treatment in the tabloids during his 2003 scandal. Townshend does not sing this tune, Daltrey does, and it’s an angry performance that leans heavily on his blunt force, but also reveals a new subtlety that serves him very well throughout Endless Wire. Instead of powering through the songs as he could tend to do in the past, Daltrey is truly interpreting Townshend’s songs here, giving them nuanced, textured readings that cut close to the emotional quick of the tunes. His voice may have lost some of its range and power over the years, but Daltrey has developed into a better singer, and he helps ground Endless Wire, which doesn’t meander so much as it overreaches, a trend not uncommon to either the Who or Townshend.
Even the best Who albums had a tendency to not quite follow through on their concepts — the mock pirate-radio broadcast of The Who Sell Out is abandoned on the second side, Who’s Next was pulled together from the flailing Lifehouse — but even so they were nevertheless triumphs given the sheer power of the band, or Townshend’s writing. Here, the band is indeed changed, and while they have top-notch professional support from drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Pino Palladino, they do not sound like a session band: they sound like the Who, only older, with their boundless energy replaced by a bittersweet melancholy undercurrent. It’s a sound that fits Townshend’s new songs, alternately sweetly sad, bitterly reflective and, despite it all, cautiously optimistic. Unlike the fussy theatricality of The Iron Man or the impenetrable mess that was Psychoderelict — or any Townshend project since It’s Hard, really — Endless Wire is not a slave to its concept; the songs fuel the album instead of the other way around. Even when it goes off the tracks — and it does, most grandly on the bizarre “In the Ether,” where Townshend affects Tom Waits’ patented growl — it feels as if it was written from the heart, which is why it’s always appealing even though it feels curiously disjointed, with the The Who by Numbers-styled first half not quite synching up with the mini-opera that dominates the second side. It may not add up to a totally satisfying whole, yet within both halves of Endless Wire there is much to treasure: on the first half, there’s the incendiary “A Man in a Purple Dress,” the powerful yet understated “Mike Post Theme,” the delicate “God Speaks of Marty Robbins,” a surging rocker in “It’s Not Enough” (whose lyrics are riddled with the self-doubt of Empty Glass) and the sweet song sketch “You Stand by Me”; on the second, there’s the mini-opera of “Wire & Glass,” a ten-song suite beginning with the rampaging “Sound Round” and closing with the haunting “Tea & Theatre,” that manages to touch on every one of the band’s strengths.
Taken on its own, “Wire & Glass” does stand as the greatest Who music since Who Are You, so it’s a bit hard not to wish that the entire album had its thematic cohesion, muscular melody, and sense of purpose, but if it meant losing the quite wonderful highlights of the first half, it may not have been worth it because they’re not only strong songs, they give this record its ragged heart. No, Endless Wire is not perfect — its parts don’t quite fit together, and not all of the parts work on their own — but it is an endearingly human, impassioned work that more than justifies Townshend’s and Daltrey’s decision to continue working as the Who. Hopefully, it will lead to another record or two but if it doesn’t, Endless Wire is certainly a better final Who album than It’s Hard, which is quite an accomplishment after a quarter-century hiatus.