A fine bit of rock and roll that encapsulates the band’s sound and fury within a 21st century context.
“I don’t care / I know you’re gonna hate this song,” snarls a 75-year-old Roger Daltrey on the opening track of the Who’s self-titled album. It’s at once a dismissal to critics and a gauntlet thrown down for the listener coming to the band’s latest (last?) album. More than half a century on, the two surviving members of the band that once loudly touted a desire to die before they got old have no time for those unwilling to go along with what they’ve got to offer and are just as surly and antagonistic as ever (the latter coming courtesy of guitarist/lyricist/resident curmudgeon Pete Townshend). In other words, it’s an opening sentiment very much in keeping with the band’s established aesthetic, one that has aged surprisingly well for a band that could just as easily have packed it in several times over or, at worst, gone the nostalgia act route.
But instead, with Who, they prove themselves a remarkably viable band well past its purported sell-by date. The aforementioned “All This Music Will Fade” goes beyond mere provocation, however, unveiling layer upon layer as the lyrics progress: “And that’s fair / We never really got along” here he could just as easily still be addressing the critics or, perhaps more likely, Daltrey, who has served as Townshend’s mouthpiece for more than 50 years, giving breath to the latter’s words. “It’s not new, it’s not diverse / It won’t light up your parade,” he continues, as if acknowledging the track’s heavy reliance on a Who sound established and returned to time and again starting around Who’s Next (think lots of arpeggiated synthesizers). And, finally, “It’s just simple verse / All this music will fade.” In other words, none of this really matters anyway so why get all worked up about a simple song by a rock band well into senior citizen-hood when there are so many other things in the world worth getting riled up about? Fittingly, Townshend ends the track with a (seemingly ad libbed) “Who gives a fuck?”
“Ball and Chain” offers up something of an alternative in terms of things to get upset about, offering up an indictment of the Guantanamo Bay situation. Townshend has never been one for big political statements on record; his specialty has always been more the personal or interpersonal struggles. But here he bristles at the treatment of prisoners – “Still guilty with no charge” – and the world police tactics of the United States in general. One could argue he’d be better off staying in his proverbial lane in terms of lyrical content, but the sentiment is concisely and effectively expressed, Daltrey’s wisened vocal growl coming off just as angry and aggressive as it did on tracks like “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” They attempt a similar socio-political approach with “Beads on One String,” albeit less ham-fistedly (think of it as the album’s lone pleading ballad looking for some sort of hope or compromise in the face of abject stupidity and morally bankrupt social and political moves).
Not beyond self-mythologizing – albeit in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner – Townshend takes a swipe at his band’s legacy on the appropriately-Who-sounding “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise”: “All the shit that we did / Brought us some money, I guess / And those snotty young kids were a standing success.” But looking beyond the chorus, the verses show something a bit deeper and darker (much like “All This Music Will Fade” before it): “He was drunk, I was blind / Though we tried to be kind /…We were quick to rotate” (referencing Keith Moon and the band’s quick change to attempt to keep any sort of momentum going); “Let’s admit our mistakes / Are what triggered our breaks” (the band’s myriad hiatuses/breakups/etc over the years); “We tried hard to stay young / But the high notes were sung / We’ve been scarred, we’ve been prized / But you could see in our eyes” (Daltrey’s own struggles to continue to be one of the greatest voices in rock music and the pair’s aging and failing bodies). The chorus, made up of a chant-like reading of the titular phrase, could well be taken as a geriatric “Hope I die before I get old,” the stubborn refusal to go gracefully still in place.
Who isn’t going to rewrite the band’s legacy in any way, shape or form, but it is a fine addition to a catalog that, since the death of Moon (arguably well before…) has been hit or miss at best. It’s a fine bit of rock and roll that encapsulates the band’s sound and fury within a 21st century context without attempting to reinvent the wheel. Rather than looking to rest on their laurels or go back to their roots a la the Rolling Stones, Who shows the band continuing to explore and tinker with a sound they’ve long since claimed as their own to great effect. In other words, Who is a far better album than anyone would’ve expected from a pair of septuagenarians who’ve elected to continue to push themselves instead of merely cash in on their well-established legacy. If only their few remaining contemporaries would be so wise. Regardless of whether or not this is the last we hear from the Who, it’s beyond refreshing to hear the band putting out an album’s worth of a material that easily stands alongside some of their best work well past the point at which anyone would expect such a thing.