“There has always been a synergy between The Who and our audience,” said Pete Townshend at the time of their 50th-anniversary bash at Hyde Park in 2015, and for all the mind-boggling stats – 100 million album sales in a career spanning six decades – it’s this connection that makes them unique. From the pill-popping inarticulacy of “I Can’t Explain” to the search for identity central to both Tommy and Quadrophenia, The Who have always provided fans with the thrill of recognition, forging a bond that sees them still sell out stadiums despite the loss of rock’s most mercurial rhythm section and an almost pathological aversion to entering the studio. It’s been 13 years since their last studio album, and a whopping 37 since its predecessor, 1982’s It’s Hard.
All of which makes the long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s underwhelming Endless Wire a tantalising prospect. With a combined age of 149, are rock’s most durable double act really still capable of making – as Roger Daltrey has claimed pre-release – their “best album since Quadrophenia”? Recorded in London and Los Angeles between March and August 2019 with producer Dave Sardy (Jet/Oasis), Who answers the question in emphatic style.
Because while the themes may be gloomily topical – ranging from musical plagiarism to the Grenfell Tower tragedy to the humanitarian horror show of Guantanamo – musically and spiritually we’re never very far from the band’s mid-’60s to late-’70s golden period. The sleeve, a pop-art collage by Peter Blake, harks back to 1981’s Face Dances, while the title is as succinct as the music within, reminding the audience that for all the upheavals of recent years – more on which shortly – the band itself remains inviolable; the duo’s rebellious Mod-us operandi unchanged from when they first glared from the cover of My Generation 54 years ago.
The sense of Pete Townshend drawing on The Who’s illustrious back catalogue to address his emotional state in 2019 becomes obvious precisely 11 seconds into electrifying opener “All This Music Must Fade”. “I don’t care, I know you’re gonna hate this song,” snarls Roger Daltrey over a thunderclap powerchord, ushering in a propulsive “Relay”-style rocker lamenting The Who’s demotion to the cultural sidelines. With Townshend’s endorphin-rush rhythmic guitar driving the song along, the singer scowls lines like, “I’m not blue/I’m not pink/I’m just grey/I’m afraid,” until, after three breathless minutes, it ends with Townshend abandoning an a capella backing vocal to mutter, “Who gives a fuck?” It’s both brazen and brilliant – a Victor Meldrew-ish redrawing of the generational battle lines so that, for The Who and their fans, it’s no longer age that matters, but attitude.
It also sets the tone for a record that – for all Townshend’s claims that Who has “no theme, no concept, no story” – feels like a love letter to their audience. The glory days may be behind them, reads the subtext, but we’re all in this together, so we may as well enjoy it while we can – not so much Lifehouse, then, as life raft. “We can’t explain/We lost the force/We went off course,” muses Daltrey in “Detour” – explaining the band’s prolonged studio absence over a thinly disguised revamp of “Magic Bus” – while “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” is a breezy, vocoder-assisted ode to growing old disgracefully along the lines of “You Better You Bet”, complete with the lines, “We still pull/We get smug/And we all like a drug.”
It’s when they move into choppier emotional waters, however, that things get interesting. Set to a string-laden tune reminiscent of Face Dances’ “Another Tricky Day”, “Hero Ground Zero” appears to tackle the thorny subject of Townshend’s temporary fall from grace, when he admitted to paying for child pornography in an attempt to prove British banks were complicit in channelling profits from paedophile rings. If the lyric “In the end every leader becomes a clown” implies a note of contrition, the song’s mood is almost euphoric, the line “On my back is the heat of a new sunrise” suggesting the guitarist’s dark night of the soul has long since passed.
While it’s easy to applaud such dextrous songcraft, it’s Roger Daltrey’s singing that elevates Who into the stratosphere. He’s simply terrific throughout, alternating between terrifying chain-gang howls on “Ball And Chain” — a red-blooded reboot of Townshend’s 2015 solo track “Guantanamo” — Bono-esque stadium bombast (“Street Song”) and, on bizarre tango-centric finale “She Rocked My World”, a grizzled late-night croon.
It’s a feat made all the more incredible given his brush with the Grim Reaper in 2015 following a bout of viral meningitis, and one that reaches jaw-dropping proportions on the album’s near-operatic penultimate track, “Rockin’ In Rage”. A slow-burner beginning with a heartfelt admission of self-doubt (“I feel like a leper/Like handing my cards in/Like I don’t have the right to join the parade”), it builds until the singer rages against the dying of the light, screaming, “I won’t leave the stage!” over a molten update of “The Real Me”.
It’s spellbinding, shiver-down-the-spine stuff, and enough to have any self-respecting Quadropheniac dusting down their scooter for one last run down to Brighton. Which, you sense, was the intention all along. Because while Who is an album brimming with experience, emotion and ideas, it’s ultimately aimed at the fans who have always stuck with them, through thick and thin. Their best since Quadrophenia, then. Just don’t leave it so long next time, eh?