The Who, â€œWHOâ€ (Interscope)
While frequently joining forces for tours and other projects, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have released just two studio albums as The Who since 1982, with 2006â€™s â€œEndless Wireâ€ their last such work until now.
â€œWHOâ€ sees the pair backed by some of their frequent collaborators since the deaths of drummer Keith Moon in 1979 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002, such as drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Pino Palladino. Others include drummers Joey Waronker and Carla Azar, bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboard player Benmont Tench.
Still, all the splendid backing notwithstanding – and not forgetting co-producer and multi-instrumentalist D. Sardy, either – itâ€™s the high standards of The Whoâ€™s last remaining trademarks, Townshendâ€™s songwriting and guitar playing and Daltreyâ€™s superlative singing, that make the album such a joy.
Townshend has written a strong batch of songs full of yearning and confronting the passage of time, many carrying shades and echoes of his past work; he rips power chords and performs slinky riffs; and his vocals, especially in support of Daltreyâ€™s leads, are still a highlight.
Daltrey, for his part, with health concerns behind him, sings with power, sensitivity, range and conviction, just as he has done for decades.
While it doesnâ€™t have the same of air of finality as Leonard Cohenâ€™s â€œYou Want It Darker,â€ released just weeks before his death in 2016, based on their recording habits of the past decades, â€œWHOâ€ may well be their last studio album.
The catchy, propulsive opener â€œAll This Music Must Fadeâ€ seems like a message about Townshend and Daltrey’s difficult relationship, even though that seems to have mellowed: â€œI donâ€™t care/I know youâ€™re gonna hate this song. And thatâ€™s it/We never really got along.â€ It may also be a missive to their fans and closes with what will become Townshendâ€™s most famous last words since his â€œI saw ya!â€ at the end of â€œMagic Bus.â€
â€œBall and Chain,â€ â€œStreet Songâ€ and â€œBeads on One Stringâ€ are topical but many other of the 11 tracks (plus three on the deluxe edition) are simultaneously defiant, vulnerable and contemplative, with aging repeatedly rearing its head.
On the rousing â€œRocking in Rage,â€ like a coda to â€œQuadrophenia,â€ the talk is still about their generation: â€œI thought Iâ€™d be calmer/Not rocking in rage,â€ even if â€œIâ€™m too old to fight.â€ Itâ€™s a shiver-inducing Daltrey performance.
Townshend sings lead on â€œIâ€™ll Be Back,â€ a nostalgic tune with strings and harmonica, that seems lifted from his â€œAll the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyesâ€ 1982 solo album.
On â€œI Donâ€™t Wanna Get Wise,â€ Daltrey seems to have changed some of the lyric sheetâ€™s â€œIâ€ pronouns into â€œhe,â€ â€œweâ€ and â€œus,â€ as if making space for himself in the rocking mini-biography of a song – â€œHe was drunk/I was blind/Though we tried to be kindâ€ – and belting out a â€œWe got wiseâ€ at the end.
Thankfully, itâ€™s much too late for Daltrey and Townshend to die before they get old, so with â€œWHOâ€ they show that even in rock â€˜nâ€™ roll, itâ€™s possible to age both with grace and vigor and without abandoning purpose. Or lose the talent to make stirring, highly gratifying music.