Recording of March 2020: Who

The Who: Who
Interscope B0031280-02 (CD). 2019. Pete Townshend, Dave Sardy, Bob Pridden, Dave Eringa, prods.; Dave Sardy, James Monti, others, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

What motivates an artist to make great statements?

Whatever it is, it's certainly a shock to see a rock-era songwriter rediscover his muse after some 40 years treading water. So it is that Pete Townshend re-emerges at the end of 2019 with his most powerful collection of songs since Empty Glass and the best Who album since Quadrophenia.

It's even more dramatic because this is not a solo album but a Who album, featuring Roger Daltrey's magnificent voice. The Who in its prime could not exist without John Entwistle and Keith Moon in the mix, but the years have peeled away and now it's all about Townshend and Daltrey.

That point is emphasized in the personnel. The Who have been using Zak Starkey on drums and Pino Palladino on bass in their live shows, but here that pair is part of a rotating crowd of session players. Though it self-consciously references numerous arrangement strategies Townshend used with the original quartet, a close listen reveals that the record does not really sound like the band does live—it relies on Townshend's long-standing fascination with production techniques that enhance the aural canvas. Townshend was a pioneer in the use of ARP sequencers and synth-guitar techniques from Who's Next on, and here his use of synth textures, rhythm loops, Pro Tools, and other audio enhancements adds shimmer and texture to songs that hark back to the band's earliest sonic innovations.

Townshend's ability to elevate his most private feelings to anthemic status has returned with a vengeance. The snarl of his guitar and the confrontation in Daltrey's lyric interpretation are in full force on the terrific barn-burner "Rockin' in Rage" ("Defying the clock in one last rampage") and "All This Music Must Fade," which makes several references to the band's statement-of-purpose 1965 hit, "The Kids Are Alright." The first line of "Kids"—"I don't mind / Other guys dancing with my girl"—is a celebration of inclusion, of the joy of being a mod in 1960s England; on ". . . Fade," the line becomes, "I don't mind / Other guys ripping off my song." ". . . Fade" is Townshend in his angry post-punk phase hurling down the gauntlet at parts of his own audience: (I don't care / I know you're gonna hate this song / And that's it / We never really got along.) On "Detour," Townshend looks back even further, to when the pre-Who band was called the Detours, while cleverly using the image of a detour to describe how his perspective has changed.

Townshend's emotions are an open wound. The brutal self-analysis he brought to classics such as Quadrophenia and The Who by Numbers—and, yes, Empty Glass—comes throbbing to the surface here on "I Don't Wanna Get Wise":

"I was drunk / I was blind / Let's be blunt / I was a bluff... The shit that I did / Brought me money God Bless / And a snotty young kid / Was a standing success. . . / Let's admit / My mistakes / Were what triggered my breaks."

It's a harsh look in the mirror that long-standing Who fans will recognize, but Townshend has always been able to balance his bleakest moods with redemptive acceptance, and so it is here: "I tried hard / To stay young / But the high notes were sung / I'd been starred / I'd be prized / But you could see in my eyes / I got wise."

Some of the songs sound like place holders, consistent with early Who albums that mixed classics with eccentric choices. Townshend could have made a killer EP with a valedictory theme, but he widened his scope to include material that doesn't hew the thematic line defined by the album's most powerful statements. I prefer the wider range, especially if this is the end for the Who.

But is it? Aging has not been well-served in rock songwriting, and here it's from the pen that so famously drew the line, "Hope I die before I get old." Townshend is up to the task, a note he sounds brilliantly on "I'll Be Back," where he accepts his mortality and looks back longingly at his days as a mod icon hanging out with the 100 Faces in the bars along Goldhawk Road. As he contemplates the end of his life, Townshend shifts perspectives between his devotion to a loved one, the complex bond with his followers, and his musings on what an afterlife might mean. "I'll Be Back," he promises, cryptically, and at moments like this it's hard not to believe him.—John Swenson

jeffhenning's picture

While still being one of those "old heads" that enjoys getting shiny discs for my collection (and would be very interested in a BD version of this), I think I'll forgo the physical media on this one and just buy it from HDtracks.

I would, though, love having this on BD if:

• It's really good
• It's in surround

Having just gotten my latest system somewhat fleshed out with KEF LS50's in 5.2, I am enjoying the wide screen, CinemaScope miracle of great surround in a great sounding room.

Needless to say, using any search criteria to see if this will be released on BD in surround returns with no usable info. (The Who Who 2020 Blu-Ray... give it a shot... ugh!).

Oh, well.

Which brings up another thought: surround is everywhere. Why aren't there now surround files for music on-line? I guess the answer is that no one cares.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture and are two of many sites that offer multichannel downloads. Checking, I discover that this album is available as a 24/96 stereo download from Acoustic Sounds and HDTracks (and other sites as well, I expect). If it's not available anywhere in multichannel, it may very well be because it wasn't recorded in multichannel to begin with.

jeffhenning's picture

... it wasn't mixed in surround. Any multitrack recording can be mixed in surround, regardless of its provenance. If you are using modern DAW software, it's not even that difficult to do.

Graham Luke's picture

Parkhead, Glasgow 1976; I was there.

(I thought The Sensational Alex Harvey Band played the better set...)

Metalhead's picture

Live At Leeds, Who's Next, Tommy, Quadrophenia, absolutely fantastic and essential to this listener.

The rest the youngster under Mr. Fremer's wing can review and comment.

Michael Fremer's picture

"Who Sell Out" and "A Quick One"

Metalhead's picture

Touche sir, I'll give you those titles. I would spin them again except cannot get the four I love off the table. Happy Spinning!!!!

avanti1960's picture

Sound is decent- mixed high with very good bass.
Performance and music are disappointing and I wasn't expecting much. Phoned in rehash.

Michael Fremer's picture

It literally was, I think!

avanti1960's picture

"they streamed it in....."

Anton's picture

Imagine the Beatles making Abbey Road...and kept working that way for 50 years.

Very odd working arrangement The Who have evolved to.