"This is not the old Who. We never said it would be. It is something else" - Pete Townshend, September 2006
And with that after 24 years of reunion tours, much anticipation, specualation, hearing loss, and another dead band member to get over, Who leader Peter Townshend and his sole surviving bandmate singer Roger Daltrey return to recording as The Who with Endless Wire, perhaps the final breath to be taken by this legendary band on record. Not looking to relive past glories or to pretend they are still the wild guitar smashing band of their youth, what Pete and Rog have given us is what Townshend is quoted as saying above, "something else". Meet the new Who, not the same as the old Who....
Which is not necessarily a bad thing for these near senior citizens of the rock n roll game as they sound very comfortable in their new Who clothes, albeit a bit too comfortable at times. An album in two parts, really (the second half being comprised of the full version of the "mini opera" Wire & Glass released this past summer) the album begins in familiar Who terrritory with the Baba 'O Riley like intro to "Fragments", a high concept number inspired by Pete's weblog novella "The Boy Who Heard Music". I will not even attempt to explain the meaning of this song to you, as Pete can barely explain it himself. And like Pete's other high concept numbers on this album they are better left for the listener to make what they want of them, as out of context they take on whatever meaning you like, Pete's high minded pretentions notwithstanding. Fragmensts with its crashing drums, power chords, electronic doodling, and Daltrey and Townshends confident vocals recall "Who Are You" era Who and would have fit comfortably on that album 28 years ago.
Other tracks on the first half of the album similarly recall Who music gone past. "Mike Post Theme" is a compelling mid tempo tune that finds Daltrey at his howling best and Townshend pondering age, love, and the sometimes diminished strength to love that comes with age, and "Black Widow's Eyes" along with the single "I've Had Enough" are both good rockers that examine the ins and outs of falling in love and why we choose the ones we love, however poorly the fit may be. Elsewhere at the start we find the "not the same as the old Who" band in acoustic numbers such as the mandolin infused spiritual ponderer "Two Thousand Years", "God Speaks To Marty Robbins" and the far too short small gem "You Stand By Me". Townshend being a songwriter of formidable talent these are good tunes one and all, if not exactly stand out cuts. Not really sounding like a "comeback" as may of been expected, instead these songs give an impression of a final graceful bow, not making a fuss but not exactly going sleepily into the night, either. And "Man In A Purple Dress" is as good a song as Townshend has ever written, his contemptuous eye hitting a precise target of those who would hold themselves above others under the pretense of faith while laying judgement all the while. "Men above men or prats in your high hats/How dare you be the one to assess/Me in this god forsaken mess/You a man in a purple dress" Daltrey sings scornfully of what Townshend sees as the pretentious clergy. And this song indeed has the attitude and bite of the old Who, if not quite the vigor.
That is the "Endless Wire" portion of the disc. The aforementioned "mini opera" Wire And Glass in its entirety takes up the next part of the record, and this is when you start to realize what could have been so far as this album is concerned. Like Fragments and the unfortunate Broadway style tune "In The Ether" from the first part of the record, Wire And Glass is inspired by Townshend's novella The Boy Who Heard Music and it contains some of the strongest material on the album. "Sound Round" "Pick Up The Peace", "We Got A Hit" and "Mirror Door" are all songs that can stand up to the best rock music The Who have ever made. In a "we're over 60 so give us a break" sort of way. The songs charge straight forward, are tuneful, and skillfully played by Pete and his new band of players. And the ballad that serves as the title cut and "We Made Our Dreams Come True" are also equally engaging. The problem is that Pete as songwriter and producer has chosen to keep these songs in shortened "mini opera" format, meaning they each clock in at under two minutes a piece, same as they did on the Wire And Glass maxi-single that was released not long ago. The expanded version of the story we get here is unchanged except for Pete tossing in the slight tune "Unholy Trinity" and what can only be described as musical filler in "Trilbys Piano" and the experimental "Fragments Of Fragments". Which is exactly that and pretty much wasted space.
What is frustrating about Endless Wire is you can hear greatness emerging but it never quite arrives. While the first part of the album sends signals of setting something up, the second half only delivers halfway on that promise with just three of its ten songs being full versions to accommodate Townshend's mini opera pretensions even the most astute listener would be hard pressed to decipher. Two of its ten songs are included as bonus cuts in full length versions and it makes you wonder why not all could of been included the same. If you consider the serviceable but weaker acoustic tracks of the first half of the record and the musical filler of the second, you begin to realize by trimming the fat off the album and expanding the Wire And Glass tracks to be included among the rest of the record in their full versions a very, very strong WHO album becomes apparent. Instead what we get is some old Who, some new Who, and just a bit too much of Townshend, now unrestrained by a once watchful Daltrey and Entwistle, turning The Who into his own personal vehicle to get his high concept ideas across. Trouble is they don't really come across fully without lengthy literary explanations by the author. And while ambitious and interesting, some ideas are better left on the written page and out of the realms of making music. In the case of Endless Wire on a whole less would have been more, mini operas be damned. Instead more is less and what is more isn't much at all. And it makes for an album that shows brilliance but is sometimes inconsistent at best.
So is this The Who" Sure, why not. Its some of the old Who, a lot of the "new Who", and Who like in various different ways. But is it The Who
. That I assure you it is not. It is as Townshend put it "something else". And what that something is appears to be a band that remembers being The Who, but for time passing and band members come and gone is not quite. This is Pete and Roger having one last go. The songs of Endless Wire are mature, sad, hopeful, melancholy even. And the album has the sound of two old rockers making one last stand. It could of been more, but with Townshend in complete control this was most likely the album he intended to make, more or less. It has peaks and valleys and some things that would of been better left behind in favor of consistency and bringing it all together. But its hard to complain when what is good is generally very strong and well done. And its nice to hear those power chords blasting, drums bashing, and howling vocals once again. Long Live Rock, as someone once said. Be it dead or alive....