This week, I did something that I haven’t done in 24 years – I bought a new studio album by The Who. Recorded in fits and starts over the last four years, Endless Wire could have been an embarrassment, a lacklustre last kick at the can. Thankfully, it’s not, but neither is it a grand triumph either. It’s as good as the sum of its parts, it’s just that some of the parts seem to be missing.
The most obvious missing parts are The Who’s late and lamented rhythm section. With bassist John Entwistle four years gone and drummer Keith Moon’s death approaching its 30th anniversary, the survivors (guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey) have done away with the bass and drums altogether on some songs, offering a mix of acoustic numbers and mid-tempo rockers, followed by a ten-song mini-opera, Wire and Glass.
The album opens with Fragments, which starts with a deliberate re-stating of the famous Baba O’Riley synth riff, placing this album clearly in the pantheon of Townshend’s work associated with his early 1970s Lifehouse project, his aborted follow-up to Tommy that has driven much of his work since, including Who’s Next, Psychoderelict, and The Boy Who Heard Music. When the song starts and the band kicks in, we are in true Who heaven, glorious Townshend backing vocals supporting Daltrey’s unearthly growl. It must be noted that while Daltrey’s voice live has certainly lost its punch over the years, he lets it all out on this set of songs, sounding almost as good as ever.
Next up is one of those acoustic numbers, Man in a Purple Dress, a scathing indictment of organized religion, followed by one of those mid-tempo rockers (and one of my favourite tracks) Mike Post Theme. Next comes In the Ether, a solo by Townshend where he affects his best Tom Waits impression. Townshend thinks this is one of the best songs he’s ever written. Daltrey thinks it’s crap. The truth is somewhere in between.
Townshend’s tendency to pray in public continues with the songs Two Thousand Years and You Stand By Me, while It’s Not Enough is a great, glossy rocker.
Then comes the mini-opera. In some ways, Wire and Glass is disappointing not so much for what it is, but what it could have been. The plot, such as can be discerned, involves three kids who form a band, post their song on the “endless wire” (a concept that dates back to Townshend’s Lifehouse in the ‘70s and predates the Internet), have a big hit, and then the band falls apart. Somehow the character of Ray High from Townshend’s 1993 solo album Psychoderelict figures in this, too.
The good news is that the songs in the opera are terrific, great little hook-filled nuggets. The bad news is that they are only nuggets. Most of the opera’s songs are only 90 seconds to two minutes long, and end just as they get going. And that’s such a shame because so many of them are so darn good. Extended versions of two of the best, We’ve Got a Hit and Endless Wire, are included as bonus tracks on the CD and demonstrate just how good this could have been if only these songs had had a bit more room to breathe. Still, there’s some remarkable stuff here. Townshend is at his sarcastic best on They Made My Dreams Come True, while Tea and Theatre, another acoustic number, is a remarkable closer.
This is not the high point of The Who’s career, but it’s pretty good nonetheless. I look forward to their next album in 2030.