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Music Review : The Who – Endless Wire

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"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 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 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 everyone's going to be convinced 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 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 the "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" so touted with this album, Wire & Glass, is such a let down. Why it's called out as such is also a mystery — its seeds are sewn 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 its 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. 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 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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About Tom Johnson

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    A buddy of mine said if Townshend had any balls left at all he would have named the album Who Cares? I think that would have been riotously funny.

  • Mark Saleski

    does your buddy write for pitchfork?

    feh!

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    No. He’s the Springsteen fan who knew the “Because the Night” story and is a Who fan. He thinks it would have been funny and in-character for Townshend given his… reluctance… to even do something like this in the first place. He’s right- it would have been funny and in character. I’m the one who doesn’t like The Who. He plans on buying the album and listening to it.

  • Mark Saleski

    yea, i know you’re the one who doesn’t like The Who…i just wanted you to state that publicly. i have succeeded!

    seriously though, maybe it’s only semantics, but i wish they’d just released this under the name Daltry/Townshend or something.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I am not afraid to put my cards on the table. I don’t knock The Who- I just don’t like them. Having heard none of the album, I am betting Tom has nailed this in terms of likely fan responses as well as the effectiveness of the record.

  • Mark Saleski

    tom is always right.

    uh, except for that Steely Dan crap.

    ;-)

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Tom is dead-on about Steely Dan.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    Damn straight!

  • WhoTLEoyd Fan

    “Endless Wire” is one of the most beautiful things I have heard from any era. I got to see The Who in Ottawa, ON—“Tea and Theater” made me break down in tears. It was beautiful. Thanks, Pete and Rog!

  • WhoRU

    Not to hijack the thread, but what’s the “Because the Night” story?

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites.

  • Cousin Keven

    I’m the biggest Who fan in the world, but I can’t bring myself to listen to this album, not even once. “It’s Hard” was a total embarassment, and the two new songs “Good Looking Boy” and “Red Red Wine” were the worst Who songs ever.

    I prefer to pop in Live at Leeds and remember them at their peak of glory.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    Cousin Keven, do you listen to Pete’s solo albums? If so, then would you have listened to this album had it been called a Townshend solo album with Daltrey singing vocals, or under any other name than “The Who”? What I’m saying is, don’t let your preconceived notions get the best of you – let the music do the work. It’s better than most of Pete’s solo work and it’s better than anything The Who did after By Numbers. Forget the name and concentrate on the music.

  • Tim

    I say the Who in Grand Rapids and I took my two boys who love the who. Normally It is hard to appreciate new songs at a concert, because you can’t sing along as you can with all their other standards. But I was impressed with the Endless Wire songs and the energy of the boys. I was worried Pete was going to break a hip when he did the splits, but he was fine.

    These are damn good musicians and only a handful can write songs as well and as thoughtfull as PT. It was an excellent concert and the Endless wire songs made the concert better. I was not disappointed.

    Speaking of disappointed and Springsteen – I saw him in NYC doing the Segar Sessions. I felt like I was watching river dance on a PBS fundraiser. Lo and behold, a few weeks later the concent aired on a PBS fundraiser. What a letdown.

    I was prepared for the same letdown at the Who but instead I was surprised and delighted. No its not the Who of my youth, but it would be false to try to relive the angry days of youth for me and the who. We’ve all matured.