Until Endless Wire came out last week, the Who hadn't made a full-length studio album for nearly a quarter-century. During that time, a Beatle died, Bill Wyman retired from the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin deflated their airship and Roger Waters walked away from Pink Floyd. And, of course, near the end of that fallow period, the Who lost their formidable bass player, John Entwistle, who succumbed to a cocaine-induced heart attack in Las Vegas. That's a lot of "classic rock" history under the bridge.
The Who's membership weren't idle. Principal songwriter Pete Townshend did considerable solo work as the years passed, singer Roger Daltrey had some success with an acting career and, periodically, the band would get back together for tours. However, for a group that figured as one of the three greatest "- and most popular - British bands to emerge from the '60s, getting stuck well before the release of a 10th full-length disc of new material must have been terribly depressing. It's little wonder that touring old material soon got so old that the core trio went on multi-year hiatus for half of the '80s and half of the '90s.
Endless Wire doesn't distill all the creative frustrations and interpersonal conflicts of those lost years. It would be a better album if it did. But it does prove that the sixty-something Townshend and Daltrey still have some spunk left in them. Fact is, they didn't die before they got old, and Townshend's youthful conviction that adolescence represented the apogee of a man-child's existence is definitely put in perspective by the vigor both display here.
The album's lead cut, "Fragments," is very obviously a Who song. It opens with a reprise of the indelible synth intro to "Baba O'Riley," and Townshend punctuates its orchestral middle bars with some of the aggressively strummed power chords that became his trademark. To be honest, Daltrey's stentorian vocal sounds a little strained. But when he bellows "We are a billion fragments/exploding outward," the uplift he communicates sparks strong aural memories of bleak suburban days spent pounding a fist along with "Pinball Wizard" and the glorious cacophony that is Live at Leeds.
As the album continues, a pattern sets in. First, a big breast-beater like "Mike Post Theme" (on which Townshend appears to argue that the products of mass culture can both cause and cure emotional constipation) warms the blood. Then a more studied track like the solemn, Tom Waits-style music-hall number "In the Ether" cools things off again. Along the way, Townshend riffs on Mel Gibson's Passion in "A Man in a Purple Dress" and depicts a lover's fascination with a terrorist in "Black Widow's Eyes."
The individual songs themselves are often built from the same materials that provided Who's Next and Tommy with their most thrilling moments, but they're more admirable than gripping. And until the band moves on to the "mini-opera" Wire & Glass (which makes up the CD's second half) there isn't much of a dramatic arc in the track listing.
Based on an unpublished novella by Townshend, Wire & Glass apparently melds the progress of a rising young band with the observations and memories of an aging rocker who's buttoned up in a sanitarium. You wouldn't figure that out from the lyrics themselves (or, for that matter, that the young band is made up of a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew). But that's not a huge problem. It's enough to know that the music we call rock comes off here as a seething, seductive thing that addles as much as it gives comfort.
Is the peppy 10-minute piece the next big statement Who fans have been waiting for ever since the release of Quadrophenia? Not really. But "Sound Round" is a nice tip of the hat to the young, hormonal Who of the late Keith Moon, Entwistle, Townshend and Daltrey, and "We Got a Hit" captures "- albeit in a brassy, Broadway-musical kind of way - that bright, confusing moment when a band first connects with the wider public.
Musically, the songs flow together fairly well, with the gospel-soaked soul of "Tea & Theatre" putting a bittersweet point on the proceedings. The libretto is choppy; on the other hand, Tommy has some clunky writing in it too.
I'd like to say that Daltrey and Townshend have willed their revered band toward a more mature but absolutely vital take on the classic Who's pugnacity and grandeur. But that just isn't true. Entwistle's death robbed the band of its most accomplished player, and his focused fury and invention on bass are noticeably absent on Endless Wire. Even in the early days, when Moon and Townshend worked up a riot of sound, he was often the sinewy center of the music. Without his contributions, the Who's new music is less meaty, less intense.
Despite what they might say in interviews, Daltrey and Townshend must understand as much. At present, they're reportedly sticking with an oldies-oriented set for the new Who tour.
Maybe that's just as well. Endless Wire is hardly an embarrassment, but it doesn't come across as the work of a band striding into the future. It's more a well-meaning valedictory statement, a flag waved one last time just to show that there's strength left in those pale, wrinkled arms.