Release Date: 6 Dec 2019
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I realise that the Who are doomed to live on forever in irony because of the one line, "I hope I die before I get old", written as far back as 1965. Yes, they've been around that long. Heck, Roger Daltrey founded the Detours, who evolved into the Who, in 1959, when my mother was only fourteen and Daltrey was actually only a year older. That's real staying power. He's heading into his seventh decade as a musician.
What surprised me is that this is only the twelfth Who studio album. A full third of those twelve are now over half a century old, including Tommy, but the Who have never been prolific. Their prior album to this, Endless Wire, came out thirteen years ago in 2006 and the one before that, It's Hard, was released as far back as 1982, on the other side of a split up. However, the band has been back for longer than they were together the first time around.
Nowadays, of course, the Who are merely half of their classic line-up. While Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend continue on, Keith Moon died back in 1978 and John Entwistle joined him in 2002. Kenney Jones took over on drums for a couple of albums after Moon's death, but there have been no official members other than the core three since the band reunited in 1996. It's notable that drummer Zak Starkey has been touring with the band for almost twice as long as Keith Moon now.
But enough of the history lesson, what does this new album sound like? Is it any good? Well, it's not bad at all, though I wouldn't expect to hear any of these songs replacing some of the band's timeless classics in the opinion of fans. That one that already has legs is Ball and Chain, the first single, as it's a reinvention of a solo Pete Townshend song called Guantanamo, released on a compilation in 2015.
Some of it certainly sounds like classic Who, not least the opener, All This Music Must Fade, ironically because their greatest songs haven't. Daltrey is on form, shifting between tender and raucous. Townshend lets loose a slew of power chords, just as we might expect. They interface well and the result is a vibrant and urgent song that's as effortlessly punk as anything the band's ever done, right down to the perfect profanity at the end.
A number of other songs are obviously the Who, but aren't quite as obvious. Ball and Chain is clearly a blues song with Who adornments. There are a lot of deceptively intricate keyboard loops in the background, which sound good every time they're used, which is rather often. While none of these tracks sounds particularly like Baba O'Riley, most of them bring it back to mind at some point because of those playful loops in the background. Maybe they ought to hire someone on hurdy gurdy.
Break the News may be the epitome of that, as it finds an enjoyable groove with enough happening behind vocals and guitar to ensure that it's always interesting but without too much happening to turn it into a mess. It's an attention-getting busker song. Detour is the Who stripped even further down to basics, playing with dynamics. Rockin' in Rage is the same but even more so, beginning quietly and then building with power chords but always feeling restrained, like a rocker played in an acoustic set.
The Who have never restricted themselves to one sound, though, and, as this album moves on, they try more and more different things with varying degrees of success. Hero Ground Zero brings in orchestration that ends up being odd elegance on a song that doesn't need it. I'll Be Back sees Townshend perform the lead vocal and, while it's a lot better than his earlier backing vocals, it only highlights just how little the Who sound like the Who without Roger Daltrey at the mike. It sounds like a solo song by someone we don't know.
Generally speaking, I liked the album as it started but I drifted away from it as it ran on, until it grabbed my attention again late on. The best and most emphatic songs are the first four, while the most interesting are the last three. Who finishes with She Rocked My World, a highly engaging song that feels intimate and jazzy, like a band playing in the corner in a quiet café. It feels like the band wanted to rock out for a while in the studio but lesser songs midway prompt them to go outside and busk in front of people instead.
And that makes for a rather inconsistent album. There's some great stuff on offer and some interesting stuff too but quite a bit of filler to extend it to album length. It's good to see them back writing new material but there's a decent mini-album in here, not a full album to cover thirteen years.