The Who now playing that song every night are only half the legend that recorded it forty-one years ago: Daltrey and guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend, plus a strong, attuned crew of juniors. But the Two are more of a Who in fight and rapport than anything I’ve seen live under the name since the 1979 tour with drummer Kenney Jones, the year after Keith Moon’s death. And in Endless Wire, the first Who album of new songs since 1982’s It’s Hard, Daltrey and Townshend have made a record as brazen in its way and right for its day as The Who Sell Out and Tommy were in theirs.Daltrey’s voice is deeper and darker now, even in total roar — you can hear the extent to which he has punished it in long service to Townshend’s songs. And it must be said: Bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002, is sorely missed here. His stoic baritone and ghoulish lyric wit were reliable black-humor relief on Who albums, especially when Townshend was at his most conceptual and argumentative.
But this is the only Who left, and at times on Endless Wire, Townshend wields it like an avenging sword. In his liner notes, Townshend says he wrote “A Man in a Purple Dress” after seeing Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Yet it is easier to hear, in the song’s stark ’63-Dylan bite, the public rush to judgment after Townshend’s 2003 arrest for viewing child pornography online. (The charge was dropped.) “You are all the same, gilded and absurd,” Daltrey sings with the same growling rage with which he defended his bandmate at the time. “Black Widow’s Eyes” is literally about a love that kills, inspired by the fatal terrorist siege of a Russian school in 2005. “I fell right in love with you/As the blood came blowing through,” Daltrey confesses, in Townshend’s words, as the guitarist hits snarling power chords against Zak Starkey’s neo-Moon-ish drumrolls and shrapnel-like cymbal spray. The closest thing to a good laugh on the album is “God Speaks of Marty Robbins,” in which Townshend, alone on vocals and guitar, dares to play Him on the eve of creation, looking forward to finishing the job so He can listen to his favorite country singer.
Musically, Endless Wire sounds more like a reinvigorated Who when it sounds least like the thunder-and-lightning band of Who’s Next. Townshend revisits the synthesizer vertigo of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the opening song, “Fragments,” and a later reprise. But the element of hypnotic surprise is gone. More effective is the mix of guitars — Townshend’s treble stabs over a focused bed of strum — in “Mike Post Theme” and “Black Widow’s Eyes.” The result is like the home demos on Townshend’s Scoop collections but with a live-band punch. The guitars are thick and crackling in “It’s Not Enough,” too, while the harmonies behind Daltrey’s controlled bellow are tight and gleaming, as if he’s suddenly landed in the middle of Townshend’s best solo album, Empty Glass.
The mini-opera “Wire & Glass” — which takes up the second half of the album — is an uneven success, a lot like Tommy. For all of the latter’s historic worth, the original double LP was basically one album of pivotal, great Townshend songs and one of the connective pieces that advanced the story. “Wire & Glass” has the same fragmentary quality and its own quixotic momentum. It ends with teatime instead of a bang — the reflective finale, “Tea & Theatre” — and one segment, “We Got a Hit,” is too paltry at 1:18. It is a combined bolt of the Who’s Sixties biff-bang-pow and The Who by Numbers that deserves extra guitars and a few more turns through the chorus. A song about a hit single should at least be hit-single length.
“Wire & Glass” is Townshend’s score of sorts to his unpublished novella The Boy Who Heard Music. It also returns to themes that have consumed Townshend as a composer — technology as a revolutionary force, music as an instrument of spiritual transformation — since 1971, when he abandoned the Who’s production of his multimedia Lifehouse epic for the nine-song concision of Who’s Next. That history has, in a way, repeated itself. The most fully realized “Wire & Glass” songs are simply fine, contemporary Who, regardless of narrative.
The album’s title track is about an Internet-like invention vital to the rock & roll revolt of the opera’s teenage troublemakers. But the country-rock warmth is that of Rough Mix, Townshend’s wonderful 1977 album with ex-Small Face Ronnie Lane. And there is one line in Endless Wire‘s “See Me, Feel Me”-like climax, “Mirror Door,” that sums up Townshend’s lifetime pursuit of the nirvana in rock, particularly that of the Who, better than any concept album. “You will find me in this song,” Daltrey sings for him — Townshend’s simple admission that there is nothing better in life than to be music. And he has still found no better way to get there than the Who.
This story is from the November 16th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.