It figures. Just when the Who had ceased to matter much — the band members having channeled a lot of their power and volatility and commitment into solo careers, employing the Who chiefly as a vehicle to take a greatest-hits revue on the road — it figures that they'd make their most vital and coherent album since Who's Next. It's fitting that It's Hard is a great record because, given the inverted world of Pete Townshend's mind, it's what you were least expecting.
The measure of worth of a Who album is the passion that Pete Townshend brings to it, and whether that passion translates into songs from which a group voice can emerge, so that it makes sense for the Who to be playing them. That hadn't been the case in too long a time. Thus, Empty Glass, Townshend's audacious 1980 solo album, found him stepping away from the band's aegis and sounding surer of himself than he had in years, while Face Dances, the lackluster Who album that came in its wake, seemed to indicate that the Who had played out their rope. Townshend's recent solo LP, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, depicted the artist's descent into an abyss of excess — and his heroic reemergence — in an obsessive, soul-baring orgy of ornate, cryptic verse and tough, tensile music. Surely by now he'd demonstrated that he could stand alone, and that he could command attention with his own voice.
Why, then, dig in with the Who all over again? Curiously, it partly has to do with the fact that Townshend must concede some of his freedom to the group process. As he put it in a recent interview: ". . . the Who provide me with a platform and a set of restrictions, constraints and limitations that are important." Those limitations apparently help Townshend focus his writing, which tended to wander abstractly through Chinese Eyes. By comparison, the generally broader, more politically minded lyrics of It's Hard seem as straightforward as the evening news. Beyond that, however, Townshend's renewed ties to the Who symbolize his rapprochement with the world after a period of exile in the wasteland. For the first time, he may have needed the Who more than they needed him — as a demonstration of the cooperative interaction that's necessary to get things done in the world, and as a unified front prepared to do battle with some of the pressing problems of our time through the medium of rock & roll. In any event, It's Hard is a strong affirmation of this band's ability to reach millions with powerful rock & roll and trenchant, galvanizing politics.
The key to the album is "I've Known No War," a song that could become an anthem to our generation much the way "Won't Get Fooled Again" did a decade ago. "I've Known No War" is one conscientious objector's statement of defiant opposition, tempered by the realities of the present day. To wit, that a nuclear war, despite our best pacifistic inclinations, is in the hands of a few men who will simply decide to push a button, and that the ensuing annihilation will be sudden, certain and eternal: "War — I've known no war/I'll never know war/And if I ever know it/The glimpse will be short/Fireball in the sky." Roger Daltrey gives a stirring reading of the lyrics, conveying both thoughtful speculation and outright anger. Just as eloquent is Townshend's guitar playing, which suggests deep reserves of humanity while telegraphing the iconographic dread of holocaust.
Equally meritorious is "Cry if You Want," which harks back to another Who classic, "I Can See for Miles," in that it can be taken at face value, or as something greater. Ostensibly an autobiographical rant about the headstrong, somewhat hypocritical fires of their youth, "Cry if You Want" might also be read as an epitaph for the arrogant, self-important idealism of this generation: "Once it was just innocence/Brash ideas and insolence/But you will never get away/With the things you say today." Those angry words are hammered home by the roaring thunder of a band playing as if its life depended on it. If you'd been wondering if the Who would ever click together again, here's all the proof you need: Daltrey's razor-edged vocals, Townshend's slashing guitar, John Entwistle's rumbling bass and Kenney Jones' martial drum rolls entwine in a ferocious attack.
The entire album is vibrant with the palpable energy of rekindled bonds and rediscovered group values. Daltrey sings in as natural a voice as he's ever used, employing his blustery growl more sparingly and, hence, effectively. Entwistle has contributed three numbers that are quintessential Who songs, not merely the darkly witty curios he's generally known for. And Jones has at last found his niche in the Who; in fact, his newfound assertiveness has toughened up the band's sound to a pitch it hasn't had since Keith Moon began losing steam.
Longtime fans will no doubt approach reverie when they hear "Athena," the single and album opener. The trademark Who intro of roiling acoustic guitar, drums and ping-ponging bass glides into one of Daltrey's most playful vocals. And when Townshend takes over for the "just a girl, just a girl" chorus, you know you're in Who heaven. But then the going gets tough, and topical: It's Hard is full of relentless, densely textured songs that excoriate private failures and the drift of the world at large toward lawlessness and ruin. Throughout, Townshend seeks to define the actions that will accomplish something beyond well-intentioned rhetoric.
It's a long road the Who have traveled from the bristling, bare-knuckled fury of their early days to the present. They rank among a handful of vanguard rock musicians who show signs of pushing through the age barrier and creating a viable adult vocabulary for rock, one that faces up to the moral responsibilities of middle age and allows them to use their craft to effectively shape consciousness. It must seem especially ironic to Townshend that this is true of the band that sang "hope I die before I get old" back in 1965, but there you go: always the group that delivers the unexpected.