According to legend, Roger Daltrey once predicted that Pete Townshend would be a great songwriter only as long as the guitarist had hellhounds on his trail. At age forty, Townshend has left behind his two biggest traumas — drugs and the Who — and has begun two new careers, literary editor and family man. In “Brilliant Blues,” Pete dismisses the anguish that has plagued his personal life and muddled his recent work and declares: “The brilliant blues/Will never flow this way again.” In short, Daltrey’s prediction has come true. Yet White City is a clear, organic parable of hope triumphing over despair, making this Townshend’s best work since Empty Glass.
In “I Am Secure” and “Hiding Out,” Townshend contrasts his penthouse privileges with the grim streets below; “I am secure in this world of apartheid,” he admits. The doom of these two songs (“And out in the one-way streets/Is a swelling maze, without a door”) is challenged in “Crashing by Design,” where Pete argues against the notion of fatalism and for personal responsibility. That spirit, in turn, carries over to “Face the Face,” with its urging to pursue idealism despite “the ghosts of failures spray-canned up on the wall.” On the radio, the song seems little more than an annoyance (Tylenol must have sponsored the drum mix), yet its value lies in its thematic significance. The title places the song in the context of Who history, from “I’m the Face” (their first single as the High Numbers) to Face Dances (their disastrous first post-Moon LP), and the lyrics combine the familiar themes of personal honesty (see “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Eminence Front”) and public motion (“Let’s See Action”). “Keep on cooking/Keep on looking/Gotta stay on this case,” Pete enthuses.
The swing backing is appropriate, too, because Townshend’s plan for facing the face involves a lot of traditional morality — he praises fidelity (the raging “Secondhand Love,” where he sings as well as Daltrey ever has), denounces insular pride (“Come to Mama”) and mocks the modern notion of heroism (“Give Blood”). And, despite an impressive set of backing musicians, Townshend’s arrangements favor the essentials — only Peter Hope-Evans’ smokestack harp on “Face the Face,” Pino Palladino’s bass, and Townshend’s own acoustic fury on “Come to Mama” emerge from the communal chordal strength.
In “White City Fighting,” Pete remembers his violent past, sounding just a bit wistful for his days as a rough boy. Yet he seems to have finally found comfort in maturity, and that feeling warms and informs White City. The values embraced by the album make it Town-shend’s most relevant work in years — as he concludes on “Brilliant Blues,” “And now is the time to say … it’s time.”