Released in 1985 a full three years after The Who’s last album and tied to a short film Pete had written to accompany it, White City: A Novel, would be Pete Townshend’s first attempt at a solo album outside The Who. Having made a couple of small solo albums of odds and ends in the ‘70’s and a collaboration with the Small Faces Ronnie Lane on the 1976 release Rough Mix, Pete’s first fully realized solo album wouldn’t come until 1980 with the release of Empty Glass and again two years later with the excellent All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. Records made when The Who were still in full swing, it’s most likely safe to assume while writing them some influence from The Who crept into the mix somehow. And more likely then not, brilliant as Empty Glass and All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes are, affected Pete’s sound and style at the time.
Fast forward a few years to 1985, and White City: A Novel, plays like a breath of fresh air in the work of Pete Townshend. Free from his obligations with The Who and moving into a “semi-retirement” of writing and book editing, Pete would also find himself doing volunteer work for a battered woman’s shelter in the housing projects near the place where he grew up. And it would be this return home so to speak that would inspire and ignite the songs of this record. Not really a concept album as much as one that is part of a larger one (see the accompanying White City: A Novel, short film) the songs on this record are a loosely linked soundtrack of sorts that bring an understanding to the bigger work and give emotional weight to the lives of the characters. A project about violence and the emasculation and pride that is often found behind it, especially when dealing with domestic violence, White City: A Novel would be Townshend’s last truly focused and unfettered solo album before drifting away from music for a bit, coming back with Tommy for the stage, assorted side projects (which included tours with a “big band” Who) and a few more solo albums which were experimental and ambitious at best, and silly and pretentious at worst.
Kicking things off is the violence has no end or meaning mid tempo rock of “Give Blood”. A song that urges us to “give love and keep blood between brothers” this track get’s the album off to a strong start as Townshend once again finds himself accompanied by the same basic band used on his last solo album (Big Country bassist and drummer Tony Butler and Mark Brzezicki, along with keyboardist John Bundrick, respectively) and despite it’s nearly six minute length, Townshend and company keep the music moving and the story evolving more then enough to keep you interested and wanting more. Coming next is the jangly pop of Brilliant Blues, a coming of age in middle age song that finds Pete breaking away from his suffocating recent past with his old band and ready to move forward with hope and faith. “It’s time to live / So make me / Take me” Townshend sings of his newfound freedom spending his time “at the Sunshine Café”, and saying goodbye to the brilliant blues forever before moving to the next track, the big band jump-ska tune “Face The Face”. An unusual song that finds Townshend contemplating the value of taking a look at your own actions before looking at the actions of others, this track features full horns, harmonica, a full chorus of back up singers, and finds Pete in full swing mode as this track truly does jump and shout with a spirit not found anywhere on his former bands last album, the dismal It’s Hard. In any case, it’s as refreshing and liberating a song Townshend has ever recorded as solo artist or otherwise.
Moving forward in the album, up next are two tracks that are directly tied to the albums loose subject matter as “Hiding Out” and “Secondhand Love” finds Pete examining the isolation and jealousy that contribute to the emasculation and violence of the male subject of his story. “Hiding Out” tells the story of one who observes life rather then lives it, softly judging all he see’s all the while. The easy pop of the song lends itself well to the peaceful tone of the track as Townshend comfortingly acknowledges that “I am safe hidden here / Hiding out”, with just a hint of simple desperation and uncertainty in his voice to suggest otherwise. And “Secondhand Love” with it’s modern R&B flavor and Townshend’s sneering vocal delivery leaves no doubt to his subjects issues of possession and contempt toward his lover even as he pleads to “have first call on your kiss” all the while accusing her of “Showing out to everyone you meet” and bringing home the “scent of another man". These songs taken out of the context of the story appear to be just what they are. A pair of pretty good rock tunes about perfect isolation and perhaps righteous jealousy. But within the confines of the story and given definition as such, they are indeed astute and insightful tales of the subtleties that can often lead men to do cruel and vicious things to themselves and the ones they love, all the while desiring what they themselves don’t know how to give. Which in this case is true and unconditional love.
Taking these themes to the next level to open the second half of the album, and things get off to a shaky start with the thin and somewhat disposable 80’s pop of “Crashing By Design” that while lyrically interesting in it’s study of a man who has last his family, friends, lover and children to his “rages” and finally asks “are you a man or still a boy"”, musically it’s given over to a thin synthesizer treatment and some generic guitar doodling. And while it’s call for personal responsibility and accountability for ones own actions does fill a need in helping to understand the viewpoint of the songwriter when it comes to his ideas, the song simply doesn’t have enough musical force behind it to drive the point home. Recovering from this musical malaise on the very next track with the aggressive instrumental piece “I Am Secure”, which puts the big bass and drums of the rhythm section on full display before quieting to an acoustic end that finds Pete taking on the role of a woman trapped but comfortable in her “world of apartheid”, and things get moving again as we head toward the finish of the album. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour steps in for some guest work on the title track (of sorts) “White City Fighting”, and it's one of the strongest cuts on the album. Here, Pete simply looks at his own role in all of this, recalling the violence of his own youth and the charge he get’s from visiting the old haunts he used to frequent that he now resists succumbing to, but being “violence prone” must return to, anyway. If just for the remembering. Closing the album with the lush and energetic “Come To Mama” which put’s the blame for all this misery and misunderstanding on the pride of both man and woman, and this vague, disjointed, but ultimately rewarding “soundtrack” wraps up nicely and lays to rest quietly, if a bit uneasily.
Free of The Who for the first time in over twenty years and taking on concerns that he had run into in his personal life, “White City: A Novel, is a good effort by one of rocks all time great songwriters. Uneven in some places and vague in others, it manages to hold it’s head above water on the strength of the skilled storytelling of the songwriter and skillful playing of the players and despite it’s sometimes weighty subject matter, never get’s bogged down or preachy. A knowing, compelling, and perhaps most of all compassionate work, it would be Townshend’s last album to date that has not left one wanting more out of the artist or scratching your head in confusion. And it’s a worthy closer in a trio of solo records starting with Empty Glass that can stand alongside Pete’s best and better work.