Daltrey has learned to eliminate the bad notes and to properly use the right ones with both passion and control.
When Roger Daltrey announced a new album that would be “a return to the very beginning,” it sounded like code for a nostalgia-driven stroll through early rock and R&B numbers best left buried. Surprisingly, Daltrey’s new album As Long as I Have You hits that era of early Who influences, but Daltrey has the taste to cover much of the past 60 years of pop music with surprising picks. His pair of original tunes fit well. Pete Townshend shows up for over two-thirds of the disc, yet it remains mostly un-Who-like, a distinctly Daltrey affair, and he makes the most of it. While his primary group was noticeably smashing instruments and perfecting arena bombast, Daltrey was surreptitiously working on his craft as a vocalist, and whatever time has done to his sound (surprisingly little, going by this record, although recent live shows might suggest otherwise), he’s made up for it with increased artistry as a singer.
Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” might be the most unlikely track to appear here, but Daltrey does it well. His sense of timing and delivery has never been better than now. Cave certainly wasn’t an early influence, but the song matches Daltrey’s sensibilities well. His restraint and sense of storytelling do the song justice. The old “bad note and a bead of sweat” approach might still apply, but Daltrey has learned to eliminate the bad notes and to properly use the right ones with both passion and control.
Other tracks make more sense. The opening title track (a Garnet Mimms cover) comes from the days of the High Numbers. Daltrey gives it a fresh feel. Initial listens might be aided by the shock of hearing new music from a full-voiced Daltrey, but the track holds up as a modern version of a classic number. Similarly Joe Tex’s “The Love You Save” goes back to Daltrey’s early days, but this one sounds a little more dated. His vocals are fine, but it sounds less of this era than of an old sock hop.
That’s one of the few moments on the disc that feel locked in time. Some of Daltrey’s previous work sounds of its time (particularly the 1980s releases). The arrangements and production on As Long As I Have You don’t rely on any contemporary tricks, allowing the development of a classic sound; in 20 years, the disc won’t sound like “Daltrey’s ’10s album.” Some of the songs do have historical referents. The Stephen Stills number, “How Far,” with Townshend on acoustic guitar, plays like the early ’70s tune that it is. Townshend’s guitar work could have come from the Who’s Next sessions. Daltrey gives another wonderful performance here, a little rough and rocking, and fully immersed in the lyrics.
One of the Daltrey originals, “Certified Rose” has unlikely musical roots, too. In this case, it’s a horn line straight from Otis Redding (enough so that it could pass for an old R&B cover). Daltrey locks into the groove, paying steady tribute to his daughter Rosie with a joyful sweetness. The other original, “Always Heading Home” marks the album’s truest ballad. It’s a peaceful, relaxed farewell.
As Long as I Have You doesn’t intend to break new ground. Daltrey, encouraged by his recording work with Wilko Johnson, simply set out to cut a soulful album of tunes he likes. He compiles music from different eras and genres (we didn’t even mention the funk song) and makes the record he wants to hear. Even so, there’s very little aspect of a vanity project here. Daltrey still puts the work in, and over the years he’s developed the technique to match his energy. This new release has a bit of the “elder statesman” vibe to it, and it shows that Daltrey remains a musical force, whether looking back to his teenage years, enjoying the present or meditating on a career heading home (but not ready to settle there yet).