The first Who album in 13 years opens with a perfectly cynical Pete Townshend lyric: “I don’t care/I know you’re gonna hate this song.” But it’s kind of hard to hate something that feels so familiar. Roger Daltrey sings the lyric and the ones that follow, claiming the song isn’t “new” or “diverse,” with the same anger and conviction as the Who’s earliest music, recorded more than half a century ago, and the melody is almost identical to the opening “I don’t mind” of the band’s 1966 single “The Kids Are Alright.” He even takes it a step farther, later in the song, singing, “I don’t mind/Other guys ripping off my song.” But even when Townshend, who wrote the majority of Who hits, is the one ripping himself off, it sounds as authentic as it does ironic.
The fact that the song, and much of the record, feels like Classic Rock Comfort Food may be why the band tiled the album simply Who — their first, official self-titled record (as opposed to The Who Sell Out, Who’s Next, Who Are You and on and on and on). It’s sort of an Abbot and Costello-esque affirmation of their identity. Luckily, Townshend and Daltrey — quite the prickly pair, as their recent Rolling Stone profile showed — can still summon their inner Who-ness in their mid 70s. Even the album cover is an acknowledgement of the record’s innate Who factor; it’s by Peter Blake, who made the Who’s similarly laid-out Face Dances sleeve (as well as Sgt. Pepper’s) and it contains nods to the band’s idols (Chuck Berry and Muhammad Ali) and their past (panels depicting Townshend smashing his guitar, a Union Jack, even Batman and Robin, since they once covered the Adam West Batman theme). It’s a nod to the past but still wholly new.
The Who have only sparingly released new music since the death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 — Who is only their fourth album since then — but it seems like biding their time has worked in their favor. Despite songs steeped in the band’s once-bragged-about Maximum R&B (witness “Detour,” which could fit on My Generation or Sell Out, and references the band’s “I Can’t Explain”), arena-rock grandeur (“Hero Ground Zero”), and plenty of teenage-wasteland synths (“Street Song,” “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise”), they now have some much-needed perspective. It’s not a rock opera (unlike their previous album, 2006’s Endless Wire, which contained a mini opera) and it’s better for it. Daltrey still has all the tough-guy bravado of his early days, and there is still a dramatic combo of brutality and gentleness throughout Who, but it’s tasteful, and that’s not an easy balance for bands that have been around as long as the Who.
“I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” feels like a distant cousin, once or twice removed, from “My Generation.” For all of the “Hope I die before I get old” arrogance of the band’s breakthrough, Townshend is now writing lyrics about learning lessons from growing old — even if he prefers arrogance. “A snotty young kid was a standing success,” Daltrey sings, “Life teaches us well, but I don’t wanna get ‘wise.'”
At the same time, Townshend has penned a well measured blues song about the horrors of Guantanamo Bay, deceptively titled “Ball and Chain.” “There’s a pretty piece of Cuba, designed to cause men pain,” Daltrey sings amid Townshend’s fluttering guitar lines. And the slow-building “Rockin’ in Rage,” finds Daltrey singing about feeling like a mute if he’s not able to speak his truth, even though he’s getting on in age – “I won’t leave the stage,” he threatens, if he can’t rock in rage. It’s also a song that taps into the tension that’s always simmering below the surface of classic Who songs, but it feels different now. Maybe that has to do with the fact that Daltrey and Townshend didn’t spend any time in the studio together when they made the album, or maybe it’s just something that’s deep within them.
The only missteps are when they venture a little too far from the Who formula. Closing track “She Rocked My World” has a Latin jazz vibe but none of Townshend’s flamenco flourishes and at least one lyric that’s regrettable for any songwriter of any age: “You hear people say, ‘She rocked my world’/But they don’t mean it the way I do.” And “Break the News,” penned by Pete’s brother, Simon, has a sort of Americana vibe more akin to recent pop songs by the Lumineers than the Who.
But when they’re on, they’re really on — and they’ve found a group of pinch-hitter musicians like bassist Pino Palladino, drummers Zak Starkey and Joey Waronker, and keyboardist Benmont Tench that can approximate Moon and late bassist John Entwistle’s contributions. The band may be only half the Who they were when they formed, but Who is worthy of the Who name. Sorry Pete, your fans probably won’t hate these songs.