Who is the first LP The Who has released in thirteen years. Sounds like a long time? However, waiting is nothing new for The Who fans. Fans had to wait twenty-four years between their 1982 LP, Its Hard, and their 2006 LP, Endless Wire. Whilst Pete Townsend has said that his former, now deceased bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle were “f**king difficult to play with”; Pete also said that “The alchemy we used to share in the studio is missing from the new album, and it always feels wrong to try to summon it up without them.” With “no theme, no concept, no story”; the analysed results of Who are bound to be interesting.
Opening with “All This Music Must Fade”, the listener is comforted with background harmonies of “What’s mine is mine What’s yours is yours…” which are best described as a more sanguine echoing of “Who are you, who who, who who” from “Who are You”, which for many The Who fans will undoubtedly reminisce halcyon memories.
Despite the upbeat introduction and upbeat sound, “All This Music Must Fade” for the most part has negative lyrics including “I know you’re gonna hate this song. And that’s fair… It’s not new, not diverse. It won’t light up your parade. It’s just simple verse”. Nonetheless, “All This Music Must Fade” plays out positively with backing vocals to the words “Yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine and what’s mine is mine, and what’s mine is yours. Who gives a fuck?” ending this song with a positive, principled and idealist outlook on life. This idealistic positivity of people coming together is lamented more consistently on “Beads on One String” with an eighties synth intro and a subtle, seldom injection of electronic improvisation reminiscent of “Baba O’ Riley”.
Whilst positivity is a valuable message, especially in a world of growing uncertainty; it is the Who songs about anxiety, tension and absence of peace of mind that are the strongest on the LP. “Ball and Chain”, opening with classical piano and a motley of mystical instruments chills with a haunting about Guantanamo Bay and the nature of long term detention without trial. Daltrey’s vocals with added palpitating gravel (as if he was approaching this song from a Tom Waits perspective) compliments Townsend’s musical arrangements and appropriately timed and understated guitar solos. “Ball and Chain” has the ability to make people both reminisce and rock out.
Positivity hasn’t galvanised the strongest songs on Who, but kindness and friendship have. “Break the News”, is about trying to be a good person and a friend to those close to you. The raconteur, folk-acoustic guitar with piano and handclaps is the perfect soundtrack and the understated electronic synth keys towards the end ensure completeness and near perfection.
The Who was known for having a wild and rebellious streak which they exercised by trashing their own instruments when playing live. One would think that with both Daltrey and Townsend being in their mid-seventies that songs exhibiting this kind of adrenaline-filled energy were behind them. “Rockin’ in Rage” proves otherwise. Whilst Townsend concedes that he is “too old to fight with machetes and blades” and is made to feel “like I don’t have a right to join in the parade”; there is still a sense that he is far from redundant, and thankfully, despite it being increasingly questioned if music can be an instrument to make a statement or be a vehicle for protest; Roger Daltrey proves that it can, as he not only sings but roars, “I know I must write, I know I must rage”.
One advantage of Who being absent of both a theme and concept is the variety of songs and subjects that appear. “I’ll be Back”, a ballad sung by Townsend sees him honestly expresses his love and emotions and reflect upon his own mortality. The seventies strings with distorted strings at one point don’t seem at first to be a natural fit; however, the Stevie Wonder harmonica riff arrangements prevent “I’ll be Back” from being understated and overlooked as a MOR, inward-looking love song.
The theme of love (or at least sensation and passion) also appears on playout track, “She Rocked My World”. Opening with Latin piano riffs and Buena Vista Social Club inspired Son Cubano, one hears Daltrey sing, “you hear people say she rocked my world. They don’t mean it the way I do.” Daltrey’s emotional vocal capacity offers a convincing argument that this is a heartfelt statement from Townsend. The Who also inject their own branding and style on the backing vocals. Daltrey challenges himself the most vocally here, executing a large number of high and long notes.
Who begins with a song reminiscent of The Who’s mainstream style; the playout song departs from it. “Detour” also impresses with heavy, pounding street drums, guitars and harmonies. “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” is another honest retrospective and “Hero Ground Zero” emits nostalgic feelings, as if one was listening to a live brass band in a street party or parade.
Whilst there may be “no theme, no concept, no story”; there is much variety. There may be an absence of alchemy, but there is hunger and determination to convey a message and produce something unique and not solely rely upon using classic hits as a working template.