I would imagine that choosing a favorite album is rather like choosing a mate. You survey your options, review those you’ve collected over the years, recalling special moments both tender and caustic, and depending on your mood or the declination angle of the sun you make a choice, both painfully lasting and arbitrary. Like people, albums have character. Some are soothing, others exciting; some are sexy, others stoic; some are smart, others visceral, and the best cannot even be contained in these trite oppositions. Yet, we’re compelled to make these choices, to settle on one thing either out of reverence for the thing itself or for our own glorification through association with it, to embrace or ignore the flaws inherent in it as we would hope our own flaws might dissolve in someone else’s view. What makes us choose this one thing is often less an acknowledgement of the greatness of the thing, but rather a reflection of our own desire for satiety of certain needs, a personal attachment more so than a detached intellectual standpoint. All this hot air is, of course, to shield me from any potential fallout due to a gross error in my judgment, but regardless of any apparent flaws I cannot relinquish my hold on my favorite thing, nor can it slacken its grip on me. For personal, aesthetic, and psychotic reasons, the Who‘s Quadrophenia is my all-time favorite album.
Perhaps selecting a double album is a copout, an avoidance of the narrowing process of selection. Indeed, artists often use the extra room to sneak in less desirable tracks, more often yielding a mediocre oeuvre, and to a certain extent Quadrophenia is no exception. Yet, if favorite status is conferred based on the frequency with which one listens to an album, as is often the case, it only makes sense that an album with greater emotional breadth would win out over the one-trick-ponies. As a concept album, Quadrophenia takes full advantage of its space, filling each track with unexpected insight, indescribable pain, palpable angst. The life of a young, working-class Brit, this Mod “ticket” is opened wide, orchestral synths and distorted guitars whipping up an expansive and tumultuous sea which becomes the central image used by the Who’s leading man, Pete Townshend, to drown the listener in the trope of the anti-hero, the punk. The emotive quality ranges from the ecstatic sensuality of “Love Reign O’er Me”, to the wistful “I’m One” to the thrashing frustration of “Can You See the Real Me”.
The fact that the overall composition of Quadrophenia isn’t strained by its emotional variety is part of its genius. While the timbre of the album is perpetually destabilized by Townshend’s fusion of his early proto-punk British Invasion style and his later art rock influences, it is a current that forms a bedrock upon which each of the tracks take off in different directions. Keith Moon’s intuitive, melodic drumming style, paired with John Entwistle’s driving bass creates a depth above which the synthesizers play like eddies on a river. The mind gets lost in these complexities and raised to unexpected heights, particularly on tracks like “Sea and Sand” and “Love Reign O’er Me” when the orchestration roils like a tsunami and Roger Daltrey’s vocal delivery pulls back in an innocent simplicity, the only life-preserver.
More striking than the uniqueness of the musical composition is the lyrical content. Those who find it difficult to embrace the now clichéd synths and layered orchestration will still find it difficult to overlook the seductive honesty and poetry of Townshend’s verse. In fact, my first memory of Quadrophenia involves a sort of seduction; tentative lovers, a dark basement, exchanging kisses, favorite records, (“I’ll listen to yours if you listen to mine”). It was an acquired taste—I was used to the melodic simplicity of my Beatles albums—but the lyrics captured me immediately. Plain and insightful, Townshend offers up classic lines that stick, altering your perception forever. “It’s all a game / But inside I’m just the same…” The story is specific enough to be on a human scale, yet it captures to perfection the basic human dilemma—alienation, the desire to be known.
OK, rose tinted glasses aside. The album is not perfect. It’s artsy to a fault. Often, the demo versions found on rarefied “bootlegs” are more gratifying. Tracks like “The Punk and the Godfather” seem to sag under the weight of the immense orchestration—horns, bass, drums, synths, guitars—is that a banjo? And, what is the deal with Keith Moon’s vocals on “Bell Boy”—a novelty track? These are not subtle mistakes; these are glaring pockmarks. I heard them as a teenager in that dank basement, and I put Quadrophenia back in its pretentious boxed packaging, but this line kept getting stuck in my head. I listened again. The flaws were still there, but they were beginning to transform somehow. Perhaps they became dwarfed by the whole of the album’s perfection, but I don’t think so. They became endearing; they became loveable flaws, not mistakes but quirks.
Music critics are held to a standard of objectivity based on a general conception of aesthetics. Yet all great critics must, at heart, be true lovers of music. What seduces us as lovers of music is, I believe, the same thing that seduces us as lovers of our fellow human beings—the presence and quality of humanity. The Who’s Quadrophenia seems to stand out as a rare example of an attempt to realize humanity in all its forms, in its darkness and beauty, and so is the most loveable album I’ve as yet encountered. It falls short of aesthetic perfection, but the passion with which many have felt compelled to embrace it perhaps calls this standard into question. Listen to it in a dark basement; hold hands, exchange secrets—fall in love.
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