ALBUM REVIEW: The Who shows who’s ‘Who’ on new record

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Six months after the release of The Who’s new album, Who, the last two members of the original lineup will be north of 75 years old.

The duo didn’t die before they got old.

The Who
Polydor, Dec. 6

But that seems to be OK with the band, and with its fans who want new music. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey still sound like The Who. An older version, but not one that’s trying to write singles. Perhaps, the band isn’t trying to prove anything other than—unlike so many of its contemporaries from the 1960s who still tour like shadows of their former selves—it can still create good music.

It borders on wonderful hearing Townshend and Daltrey still coming together to make their signature sound. Maybe it has something to do with all those stories about them growing closer in their advanced years. Their new album, Who—their first in 13 years—is an occasionally defiant and  occasionally comfortable surprise.

There’s also some anger, dismissal, questioning of their own relevance and some musical wistfulness. Some moments manage to tap into the band’s own legend status. Some nice moments of storytelling seep through the looming threat of irrelevance.

The record kicks off just the way one would hope a senior citizen edition of the Who would. “All This Music Must Fade” opens with Daltrey modestly snarling “I don’t care/ I know you’re gonna hate this song.” He warns that it’s not new and not diverse. He’s right.

The song alternates between the band’s formula of big chunky guitar chords and floating harmonies, like it could’ve been written during the 1970s. Longtime Who touring drummer Zak Starkey remains the perfect player for the job, evoking the accenting tom-tom work Keith Moon implemented during early The Who records without going overboard as an impersonator. Townshend ends the song perfectly by asking “Who gives a fuck?”

The following “Ball and Chain” is a little more awkward, calling out the United States presence in Guantanamo Bay at least a decade too late. The song, which Townshend originally released in 2015 as “Guantanamo,” was re-recorded for Who. It’s still put together well, with piano, strings, and big guitar riffs. So far, this is anything but a thrown-together excuse for a new record. Daltrey’s vocals sound great for a 75-year-old rock star after pushing his throat to the edge for most of his life.

“I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” is another look back at the “snotty young kids” The Who used to be. The transition to snotty old men feels genuine, as does the introspection. Again, the quality is surprising. For all its endurance remaining live energy, the Rolling Stones—the natural comparison when it comes to British septuagenarian rock—haven’t made music this fresh since in nearly 40 years.

“Detour” is a well-constructed highlight, with Starkey’s swing shuffle beat laying the groundwork for classic Who harmonies and some recognizable keys at the end.

Who dips into mild filler with “Beads on One String,” “Hero Ground Zero” and “Street Song.” There’s an occasional flash of the familiar, but they’re mostly a placeholders before a strong finish.

The Who comes back big and funny enough with “I’ll Be Back,” a Townshend-sung injection of… sweetness? Perhaps it’s something he would have called elevator music 45 years ago, but it’s not plastic. It’s a warm love song that sounds like he means it.

Written by Townshend’s brother, Simon, “Break the News” is a reflective, uplifting foot-stomper that almost feels like a single—if the band cared about such things at this point. “Rockin’ in Rage” brings some ironic drama with lyrics like “I’m too old to fight”—which I don’t believe for a second. With The Who, drama is a good thing. It makes Townshend and Daltrey sound like they care. Conversely, they’re also experts at making music that sounds like they don’t give a rat’s rear end. Both approaches have always worked for them, and still do.

“She Rocked My World” is just cool storytelling, musically warm and thoughtful. The dynamic piano, acoustic guitar, tasty bass and understated drums smell of great jazz. And it’s just long enough to make you play it again. “This Gun Will Misfire” falls into a similar category, with Townshend handling vocals. The arrangement is terribly comfortable, with a chorus and a bridge that could’ve found a place in the ‘60s album charts.

“Got Nothing to Prove” also evokes ’60s rock and roll, along with a Quentin Tarantino movie. “Danny and My Ponies” is Townshend becoming the guitar-slinging, storytelling grandpa he was always meant to be. He sounds great; like an old Irish folk singer.

The Who has threatened to retire for years. Instead, the band has beaten the odds and made a record that legitimizes its decision not to call it quits. It may be the band’s last record, but Who makes the world believe it can do more.

(1) Comment

  1. Kurt Otterbacher

    I enjoyed reading your review. I disagree strongly that Beads on one String, Hero Ground Zero and Street Song are "mild filler." I rate them as possibly the three strongest tracks, particularly the latter two. Otherwise, you made some good points and clearly listened at least once.

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