The highlight of the recent set of Townshend reissues -- and of the last 25 years of the man's career, for that matter.
What can you infer about an album when its most lasting legacy involves the rhythm section of Big Country, who first played together on a couple of said album's tracks? That the album must have a killer rhythm section, of course! Seriously, though, you'd have to say that, in the annals of rock 'n' roll history, said album would have to occupy a fairly minor place.
I was seven years old when Pete Townshend released Empty Glass, but I think it would be safe to say that it seemed like much more of a Big Deal in 1980 than it does now. At the time, the Who were nearly a decade past the high water mark of Who's Next and struggling to maintain artistic cultural relevance in the face of punk and new wave (which they had directly inspired). It had been two years since the last Who album, Who Are You. Keith Moon was dead. In this context, Townshend's effective first solo album (1972's Who Came First was more of a curiosity than a proper album) was understandably seen as a big statement: How would the living legend respond to punk and new wave, not to mention middle age (he was in his mid-30s)? Would he have anything to say about Moon? Would Empty Glass offer any hints at what could be coming from the Who?
Twenty five years on, we know quite well how the answers to these questions played out. True to his nature, Townshend was conflicted about the musical styles that were taking hold in the new decade. He liked punk, but he hated the posing of certain punks. He missed Moon but was primarily angry that, as he saw it, no one else did. He dealt with the loss and artistic struggles by abusing cocaine and heroin, delivering a couple spotty solo albums in the process. And as for the Who, it was all anticlimax -- living down the legend with a pair of inconsequential studio albums and the inevitable (but no less hypocritical because of it) "farewell" and reunion concerts.
That leaves Empty Glass with very little mystique. Instead, it can be looked at as arguably the only Townshend work from the '80s, '90s, or '00s that most fans would identify as "one of his best". This reissue, part of a comprehensive overhaul of Townshend's solo catalog, adds some "alternate vocal" versions that are really more like stripped-down demos. The remastered sound is sharp, but sadly falls victim to the recent trend of setting all levels as high as possible, squashing dynamic range. Empty Glass is confident, accomplished, and lyrically as personal as anything Townshend has done. Yet, in terms of arrangement and production, much of it has dated poorly.
Take opener "Rough Boys", for example. Dedicated to the Sex Pistols, it's rollicking and rowdy but really more pub rock than punk rock. In fact, it could almost be a more raw and ballsy Huey Lewis. "And I Moved" features some elegant synthesizer arpeggios that flirt with the ethereal, but the rhythm is pure disco. Producer Chris Thomas had worked with the Pistols, but it's the clean, crisp professionalism he brought to Roxy Music and Pink Floyd that's at the core of Empty Glass's sound. The downside is that the prog. rock synthesizers and art-school drumming that were state-of-the-art in 1980 sound more like hindrances 25 years later.
Ultimately, Townshend's songwriting makes the best of Empty Glass more than worthwhile. The hit single "Let My Love Open the Door" is just a great, unabashed love song and pop song. When Townshend sings
When everybody seems unkind
I'll give you a four leaf clover
Take all the worry out of your mind
his simple yet naked emotion is sincere, a notion that comes through in his overdubbed, barbershop quartet-style backing vocals and the song's charming, three-chord arrangement. It's Townshend's personal take on "Good Lovin'", and it's meaningful to hear such an admittedly complex figure get back to basics -- musically and emotionally. The song has been widely regarded as an informal response to punk, but that description better fits "Jools and Jim", basically "Let My Love..."'s angry older brother. Starting off with nearly the same chord structure, it goes on the offensive, ripping punk poseurs and bandwagon-jumping journalists who "don't give a shit Keith Moon is dead". Townshend punctures punk's novelty, too: "Anyone can have an opinion.../ Anyone can buy some leather." But just when these may seem like the ramblings of an over-the-hill rocker, he admits "you're right, hypocrisy will be the death of me". It's powerful and musically as invigorating as anything he's done.
Townshend continues to struggle with pop and rock music's new visual, mass-media orientation (MTV was only a year away) and his place within it on the excellent, barnstorming title track. Again, his indignation is tempered with self-effacement:
I stand with my guitar
All I need's a mirror
Then I'm a Star
I'm so sick of dud TV
Next time you switch on
You might see me... what a thrill for you…
Don't let down moods entrance you
It's an angry, conflicted, yet ultimately passionate manifesto for the new decade, Townshend's third as a "Star". The sad subtext behind this re-issue is that, the recent Who studio album notwithstanding, it's a manifesto that Townshend has been unable to uphold.