Not much introduction needs to be made for a band whose career has spanned 55 years, emerged as part of the British Invasion scene, played Woodstock and Live Aid and blazed huge trails for innumerable bands in their wake. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are the sole surviving members of The Who, but the drive and legacy of one of rock’s most titanic bands shows no signs of slowing down as evidenced by the fact that the who-some twosome are hitting the road across the U.K and Ireland this next year in support of their latest album.
That latest album, simply titled Who, is a 14-song long effort including the bonus tracks that on the surface (or the cover, made by the immortal Peter Blake) looks like a career retrospective, with both Daltrey and Townshend well into their 70s now. Not able to cover all the instruments alone, the duo sought a little help from their friends, which includes Pino Palladino playing bass on the sweeping majority of the album and Zak Starkey handling the sticks and beaters on numerous occasions amidst a handful of other drummers.
Who kicks off with “All This Music Must Fade”, which from the second Daltrey’s roaring vocals explode out through the speakers embodies undiluted, unmistakable Who. The sound of Townshend’s ringing guitar is equally pure and distinct; one can hear and visualize old Pete sweeping down and windmilling the opening chord as he has for over half a century in the studio. From the outset, The Who start off on a strong note and make it clear that they’re not trying to keep up or be anything but themselves: “It’s not new, not diverse/It won’t light up your parade/It’s just simple verse/All this music will fade.”
“Ball and Chain”, a remake of a Townshend song from 2015 continues down the established path with a signature keyboard intro evocative of staples like “Baba O’Reilly” and “Who Are You”. Appropriate for a raging blues, Daltrey takes the time to comment on the ongoing operation of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; a hot button of controversy since the Bush Administration and kept indefinitely open under Trump. Though Pete and Roger clearly failed to die before they got old (thankfully), “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” is a look back on a whirlwind life without a shred of regret, true to the letter to the defiant ethos they came through the door with on “My Generation” all those years ago.
The groovy, percussive “Detour” features splashings of “Magic Bus”, though the theme of the song nods back farther to the early 1960s when Daltrey, Entwistle and Townshend played under the name The Detours before morphing into The Who. “Beads On One String” mellows out the vibe a bit and calls idealistically for an end to war and bloodshed in the name of God- calling instead to “…bring us together like beads on one string.” “Hero Ground Zero” blends Baba-esque orchestration and power with suspense and lyricism reminiscent of “The Real Me” and similar tracks on Quadrophenia, while “Street Song” trots closer to early U2 territory with its anthemic, empowering approach.
Taking another obligatory reprieve from raw power, “I’ll Be Back” treads softly in the territory of Abbey Road-era Beatles. Far from revelling in stardom as an elder statesman, Townshend, taking the reins vocally focuses more on what really matters in life: “No more big star, just be happy and go far” and comes to terms to “…accept I might finally be dying.” “Break The News” sees Daltrey sing a similar grateful tune for Heather Taylor while providing the most current year-sounding track contained on the entire album. “Rockin’ in Rage” tries to reconcile the reactive, polarized social climate the world finds itself in while resurrecting and channeling the spirit of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the process. “She Rocked My World” escapes the wear and tear of conflict into a sensuous, seductive dance, recalling the story of a past fling incomparable to any other.
Three bonus tracks remain for those still curious: “That Gun Will Misfire” once more urges peace over violence, specifically the use of bullets and the mechanisms that propel them blazingly through the air. “Got Nothing To Prove” is a tune from way back in the vault- we’re talking A Quick One far back- that was cut for “lack of emotional resonance,” but has appropriately been given new life lightyears later, when the band truly has nothing to prove anymore. Finally, there is “Danny And My Ponies”, a vaguely country-ish tune sung by Townshend about a drifter and others like him in Britain. Despite the relatively bleak subject of the song, the track is a sunnier portrayal of “Danny” than what otherwise might be given; perfectly suitable for such a bright and sunny ending to what is indisputably a magnificent album.
Who, by The Who, communicates many things. It is a feather in the caps of its surviving members, showing that while there may not be any more dues to be paid, it doesn’t give an excuse to slack off and make lazy records. On that note, Daltrey and Townshend showed that they still have it and are able to give remarkably strong performances for men their age, boosted even further by the contributions of their accompanying musicians in the studio. Finally, it shows that with the fantastic output generated by up-and-coming bands and the veteran shows of force by the forefathers that influenced them, the people who produce and pioneer rock and roll may die, but the music, and its spirit, never will.