As a fundamentally religious artist, Pete Townshend fashions his music from sermons and confessions. Though it’s not an easy thing for intellectuals to admit, this is well within the limits of rock & roll tradition. From the beginning, rock has been a music that’s attracted evangelical Protestants, lapsed Catholics, cabalistically inclined Jews and yearning acidheads.
What makes Townshend singular is his insistence on not separating his most transcendent spiritual convictions from gut-and gutter-level rock & roll. It’s been suggested (by Townshend, even) that rock itself is a religion, but that’s not quite right. Let’s say instead that rock is a spiritual medium as much as a musical one. (Which goes a lot further toward explaining its uncanny hold on the devout than any social or political explanation I’ve yet heard.) For Pete Townshend then, playing rock & roll well becomes an act of grace, while playing rock & roll badly is a brutal test of faith.
Townshend has been in a near-continuous state of spiritual crisis since Tommy, and you’d think that his feelings of self-pity and remorse (which have dominated later Who LPs) would have been intensified by the deaths of Keith Moon and “the kids” in Cincinnati. But he seems to have been strengthened rather than weakened by such overt turmoil, and the result is that he speaks with tremendous clarity here. If Empty Glass‘ very title questions Townshend’s worthiness to receive grace, the shape of his music leaves no question that he’s willing to accept whatever fills the cup.
Empty Glass contains the least stiff-necked music that Pete Townshend has made in ages. Indeed, you’d have to go back to The Who Sell Out to find him so consistently self-confident. All this comes through in both the song structure, where he toys with sixteenth- and thirty-second notes as well as standard rock & roll chords, and in the arrangements, where guitars and keyboards no longer fight for space but simply fill in where appropriate. When Townshend wanted to go jazzy on Who Are You, he felt it necessary to cast the compositions in the form of apologies. Now he rocks more freely, and when he does stretch out, he simply gets on with it. Empty Glass may be an album without much innocence (not even in “Rough Boys,” the rousing rocker dedicated to his children and the Sex Pistols), but that’s only because Pete Townshend is past the point where he can fake acceptance. You can hear it in his vocals, which are the most — and probably the only — assured ones he’s ever done.
Thus does Townshend the preacher step down from his pulpit to wander once more through his peculiar parish. And we don’t have to wait long for his first pronouncement: “Gonna get inside your bitter mind,” he sings in “Rough Boys.” No longer trapped between an ocean of transcendence and a bog of misery, Pete Townshend is far less insulated these days. When he sings the aforementioned line, in the same quavering voice he used for the “teenage wasteland” verse of “Baba O’Riley,” he’s talking not only about the Sex Pistols and his own kids but also about his mind. Whenever he’s being introspective here, Townshend slips into his “teenage wasteland” style and sings very softly.
“I Am an Animal,” which declares Pete Townshend “Queen of the fucking Universe,” might be the only good joke on the LP (except for the cover, where he sits with halo and brandy bottle, hubris incarnate). But coming on the heels of “Rough Boys,” it encapsulates the record’s tensions: songs of reality and songs of spiritual imagination, songs of doubt and songs of faith, songs of experience and songs of devotion. What’s missing (again) is innocence, and it’s about time he’s lost that. For quite a while now, Townshend has been threatening to dispense with the pose that he never really knew what both hands were up to, what actions they were taking. He’s certainly done so here. Empty Glass isn’t just an album with vaguely religious connotations. It’s as consciously spiritual as any rock & roll record ever made.
Not that everything is exactly what it seems. Pete Townshend remains rock’s master illusionist. The love songs, especially “Let My Love Open the Door” and “A Little Is Enough,” might sound purely romantic on the radio, yet their imagery is shaped by religion. (Whose body is so “edible,” after all, as the Lord’s?) But just as surely, “I Am an Animal” shows us two sides of Townshend: one, the devout disciple of Meher Baba, imagining God’s imagining the world; the other, the scourge of hotel rooms, explaining his recklessness and inconsistencies.
Empty Glass‘ two most-discussed tunes, “Jools and Jim” and the title track, are no less deceptive. “Jools and Jim” (nice Truffaut pun there) could simply be Townshend’s aural poison-pen letter to the New Musical Express‘ rock-critic enfants terribles, Julie Birchill and Tony Parsons. Yet whether intentionally or not, Pete Townshend’s rage is finally more far-ranging as he delivers a scathing critique of the puritanical and self-righteous streak in the New Wave. This is Townshend the rock critic at his best, spewing out lines like “You listen to love with your intellect” and “They have a standard of perfection there/That you and me can never share” with frightening urgency. Just as the furiously punkish drumming that kicks off “Jools and Jim” symbolizes the end of his defensiveness toward punk’s usurpation of the spotlight, the quiet verse in which Townshend confesses his own hypocrisy establishes his determination to let no one off the hook.
“Empty Glass” is a complex attempt to resolve the questions posed by the final verse of “Jools and Jim.” On one level, it’s an extension of the dialogue, begun in “The Punk Meets the Godfather,” between an old rocker and a new one (or what’s left of the elder’s idealism, which comes down to the same thing). But juxtaposed as it is with “A Little Is Enough,” “Empty Glass” suggests Townshend’s acceptance of new limits to his role playing (and new vistas in his songwriting: the opening synthesizer notes of “A Little Is Enough” evoke nothing so much as the voices of the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Just as important, “Empty Glass” provides Pete Townshend’s extremely condensed rock & roll version of the Book of Ecclesiastes (not so ironically subtitled “The Preacher”). Ecclesiastes, of course, is one long rant about the futility of everything under the sun, particularly human creation. To a Who fan, it can read like the secret liner notes to The Who by Numbers.
As a confessional, however, “Empty Glass” offers little that we don’t already know. The second verse — in which Townshend declares, “All I need’s a mirror/Then I’m a Star” — is probably just penance for snipping a similar lyric out of the Who’s version of “Who Are You” (it exists in a demo treatment). Yet as an act of faith and a call to action, the song is a lot more, because it goes well beyond the superficial rendering of Ecclesiastes suggested in the opening stanza (“Life is useless”).
In a way, Ecclesiastes offers two texts for “Empty Glass.” The lines in the first chapter about “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh … and there is no new thing under the sun” are obvious enough. The second text is more significant. It appears at the very end of the book: “Vanity of vanities saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yes, he gave good heed, and sought out and set in order many proverbs.”
There’s little there that couldn’t be puzzled out from an Eddie Cochran single: the pointed pointlessness of life is precisely why there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues. What’s really important here is Pete Townshend’s ability to express his reconciliation with futility in rock & roll terms (he matches the Bible almost symbol for symbol). Like a lot of the greats, Townshend has had to live down a certain sense of shame about the worth of the genre itself. One measure of Empty Glass‘ success is that he seems to have crossed that hurdle now. Or to put it in the words of the LP’s concluding (and most Who-like) rocker: “Gonna get ya anyway.”
Sure, there’s an inevitable catch, which is that we’ve heard bold declarations from this quarter before. It remains to be seen whether Townshend can carry out such brave promises in the next test of his career: reestablishing the Who as an ongoing creative entity. But if Empty Glass suggests anything, it’s that the new Who music might be very different, without sliding into the pomposity of “Music Must Change.” Pete Townshend’s current songs are mostly quiet declarations, not strident ones — another sharp departure from his past. And, after all, those of us who still hold out much faith and devotion for rock & roll at this point must grasp at any straw. The ones offered here are far stronger than most, because they’re bonded with real love.