The cover looks sort of like the Rolling Stones‘ Emotional Rescue and even the title feels slightly off. Not that the Who hasn’t used masks as themes or images before – a good half of their work can be summed up by Kurt Vonnegut’s line that we are who we pretend to be, so we should be careful who we pretend to be. But even though the vagaries of identity have always been Pete Townshend‘s great subject, he’s invariably pursued it through some larger motif, from “My Generation” to “Who Are You.” As a title, Face Dances sounds too literal-minded, too narrow and fancy in a way that’s both distancing and depressing. More like Genesis than the Who, maybe.
As an album, Face Dances is neither triumph nor failure. Like every Who LP from Quadrophenia on, it makes the most sense as Episode 442 in the band’s continuing story. On its own, it’s winsomely slight at best, bafflingly circumlocutory at worst.
Like The Who by Numbers and Who Are You, Face Dances is another transitional record whose subject, once again, is transition. But where The Who by Numbers was bitter and introverted, and Who Are You lashed out furiously and publicly at fate, Face Dances is exceptionally calm about the facts of age and change – accepting, in effect, the condition of flux as a kind of permanence, not to say stasis. Its antecedent isn’t really a Who album at all but Pete Townshend’s 1980 solo LP, Empty Glass, the source of the new record’s cautiously buoyant mood and oblique method, and also, indirectly, of its problems.
On Empty Glass, Townshend lifted himself bodily out of the Who and made a separate peace with booze, fame, getting old and the gap between the mystical and the practical that had long obsessed him. Most of all, he discovered erotic love as a regenerative force and put it across with a down-to-earth head music that was tremulous, strong, elliptical and joyous. Now he’s taken everything he learned on Empty Glass and attempted to place it within the context of the Who. But what he learned was so personal that it just won’t translate.
This comes through most clearly in Roger Daltrey’s singing – the distance between Townshend and Daltrey has never been more obvious. Pete Townshend’s new numbers require delicacy and, on another level, humility: for him, sex is a gift, a source of wonder. And Roger Daltrey is the last man on earth to see it that way. He’s audibly uncomfortable with the meant-to-be-playful shifts of mood in “You Better You Bet,” reverting to his broadest mannerisms wherever possible. In “How Can You Do It Alone,” he turns what’s supposed to be self-deprecating helplessness into a stud’s smug leer, and what’s intended as horror into a melodrama that only underlines the composition’s basic silliness – I mean, does Townshend really think that “With eyes full of shame/For he knew that I knew/He slumped to the wall with a moan” is a believable description of a teenager caught stealing a girlie magazine?
In a way, it’s unfair to blame Daltrey for misinterpreting material whose meaning seems largely still locked in Townshend’s head – though these two men certainly do manage to bring out the worst in each other. The lyric of “Daily Records,” a love song and the Who’s latest bulletin to their fans, is obsequious enough (“You still support me now/You love me anyhow”), but Daltrey makes it as fatuously preening as an aria from The Pirates of Penzance. Of the better tunes here, not one wouldn’t make more sense on a Townshend solo album. And the mediocre cuts sound like Pete Townshend forcing himself to sound like the Who.
Often, as in “Cache Cache,” Townshend tries to patch compromises into the writing itself, providing Daltrey and the band their due with passages of hard-driving rock bombast while stuffing his own version of sweetness and light into the cracks. Since Townshend’s heart isn’t in the bombast, however, the songs sometimes miss their own points – and yet when he follows his true instincts, the Who can’t give the material either sense or force. “Did You Steal My Money” (which sounds like a sequel to Empty Glass‘ “And I Moved”) seems meant to work as a metaphor – and an interesting one. But it’s so clunkily literal and reticent (with studio fripperies substituting for interpretation) that you can’t figure out what it’s a metaphor for.
Clearly, Pete Townshend is attempting to communicate attitudes that have a huge significance for him – a new mood of open acceptance toward sex, aging, rock & roll and living in the everyday world. Yet the Who isn’t about passivity and acceptance: it is about frustration, epic confrontation, rage. Townshend’s concerns just don’t seem to have much connection to his group anymore, and this comes through not only in the on-again, off-again lyrical approach but in every facet of the compositions. The music alternates between an uptempo rock swagger that sounds imposed on the material and quietly filigreed melodic passages that the band seems ill at ease playing. The Who’s familiar repertoire of rhetorical devices – the sudden soft-loud, slow-fast changes; the whole superstructure of segues, theatrical overdubs and explosive solos – sounds irrelevant here, and even the best bits (Townshend playing banjo licks on electric guitar in “Daily Records” and the cascading keyboards and harmonies of the “You Better You Bet” intro) aren’t part of anything bigger than themselves. Though the songs are smoothly and beautifully produced and performed, Face Dances feels scattershot, centerless.
It may well be that the themes Pete Townshend now wishes to explore can’t be expressed in rock terms – at least not rock & roll as defined by the Who. It’s not surprising then that two of the LP’s most successful tunes are by John Entwistle. Entwistle’s sense of rock has always been on the kitschy side – his penchant for the showiest kind of rock & roll melodrama is confirmed, not undercut, by the weird, off-center humor he leavens it with. But because his songs are so deliberately dumb, they provide a low excitement that most of Face Dances lacks. Certainly, Roger Daltrey sounds more assured when he’s bulling his way through John Entwistle’s self-advertisements.
Entwistle’s numbers also work because they ignore the rest of the record’s content–whose message, from Pete Townshend’s point of view, pretty much boils down to the idea that the Who’s era of crisis and trauma is behind them: from now on, they’re just another rock & roll band trying to get by (even though no other rock band in the world would devote an entire album to explaining the switch). Only one Townshend tune makes this message convincing, and it’s the LP’s best. In “Another Tricky Day,” the constant shifts of melodic focus – a rhythm guitar unraveling here; a rumble of bass, a quick harmony or swatch of rippling keyboards there – express the song’s life-goes-on theme. The changes of mood from line to line – rebellious, fatalistic, confident, worried – are all held together by the chorus: “This is no social crisis. . . Just gotta get used to it.” With its carefully modulated dynamics and Daltrey’s finest singing, “Another Tricky Day” approaches perfection, effortlessly achteving the calm within the storm that most of the record strains for.
Still, Face Dances as a whole makes you wonder if the Who, without social – i.e., personal – crises, has any other reason for being. It’s possible that the gap between Pete Townshend and the band has grown too wide to be bridged – that these guys have, in effect, outlived their usefulness to one another. Though it’ll probably be taken as heresy in some quarters, that’s the feeling I get from this album. Surely it was obvious for some time that Keith Moon’s style didn’t fit in with Townshend’s ideas, to the point where Kenney Jones meshes more fluidly with the group’s current sound than Moon had in years. Why shouldn’t it happen with the others as well? Ultimately, Townshend’s music – in other words, his character – may become so inbred and withdrawn that it no longer has any place in his band’s bravura public stance.
But I guess I don’t really believe that. It’s more likely that Pete Townshend will write an anguished set of songs about how he and the Who have outgrown each other. And the Who will, inevitably, perform them. Who fans will buy the LP and be happy. Life will go on.