The Who are still very good and just as relevant as ever.
The Who took a deep breath for 24 years before releasing this new album. That pause gave them time to, variously, make solo albums, act, repeatedly reunite, and make us really sad. With Endless Wire, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and four other guys who are really talented but whom you don't care about even if they've been more or less bandmates for a long time, come back to make a big statement. Or possibly no statement at all, depending on how you want to look at it.
It might be no statement at all, because the disc does what the Who has always done, only in not such a big way. Townshend's written on the topics he hits best -- spirituality and music -- and he's provided big anthems and little acoustic ditties. The first half of the album doesn't cohere in any sort of statement way, and the second half is a mini-opera, which is, by definition, not full in scope. That it comes from a novella published via blog and one day likely to be something else entirely doesn't make it any more important.
Even so, Endless Wire has a critical thing to say: the Who are back, and they're still very good and just as relevant as ever. Townshend's finally living in more or less the age he envisioned over 30 years ago, and he approaches this era from an emotionally and intellectually confident level. To say the first half of the disc doesn't cohere does it an injustice -- the songs do vary, but they do so in a way that makes it the group's most textured album in, well, much longer than 24 years.
Through synth-based numbers, arena rockers, and acoustic odes, the band builds a vision in pieces. The high point of this vision comes with "Mike Post Theme", the best track any member of the Who has recorded since "Empty Glass". The track opens with a big chord and Daltrey yell: "We're not strong enough / We're not young enough!" The song immediately jumps into a "video game dream" in which we shut down our emotions. The epic chorus "Everything is alright... we pray today" is more plea than its confidence expresses. While Daltrey and the band attack the lyrics aggressively, they reveal an unexpected vulnerability. As the singer becomes unhinged, his thoughts undo any hope of true emotional responsibility:
There comes a time in a every little punk's life
When he has to write a song for his commonlaw wife
We make our women wait until they want to scream
We can always whistle that Mike Post theme
In those four lines, Townshend captures that sense of releasing true emotion into a vicarious feeling, but he does so uncritically, acknowledging simply that we sometimes need the help of media to get to our buried feelings. The track merges pop and art as well as The Who Sell Out while providing the anthemic charge and release of Who's Next.
Despite the run of strong songs, the first half does offer two mis-steps. "In the Ether" would be a forgettable enough number if not for Townshend's vocal affectation. The critical community has apparently collectively decided that its a Tom Waits-ian delivery, but whatever it is, it's ineffective and argument in favor of the narrator's isolation. The other problem comes, oddly, with the single "It's Not Enough". With its aggressive delivery and art-house references (to Godard's Le Mepris), it's pure Who, but Townshend opens with a guitar tone peculiarly dated to the early 1980s. It could almost be read as a musical raspberry to relevancy, but it comes off instead as just outdatedness. Even so, the song works as a classic rocker; it just doesn't sound current.
The album's second half, the mini-opera Wire & Glass contains a string of short powerful songs. Opening number "Sound Round" could have been a single, as it epitomizes the band's success in sounding true to itself without remaining bound to the past (actual single aside, of course). The country-influenced "Endless Wire" offers Townshend a chance to change pace and tone smoothly. The track comes at the middle of the mini-opera, and while the Who push ahead, Townshend draws thematically on the grid idea that reaches back to his Lifehouse/Who's Next work through character Ray High who returns from his role in Psychoderelict.
That's getting a little confusing, and the mini-opera doesn't hold up narratively. You can piece together the founding of a band and their rise and fall, but without having read The Boy Who Heard Music (Townshend's novella and source for these songs), it won't make any more sense it terms of plot (and you still won't know why the opera's band performs "Fragments", a song that original appeared on the ostensibly unrelated first half of the album). That doesn't matter. One after another, the songs comfortably submerge their art just enough to make it pop. "We Got a Hit", for example, sounds like something you can almost sing along to on first listen, but Townshend's been creative enough with its melody that it stays fresh on repeated listens. "Pick up the Peace" buries mature memory and loss in a rocker that restrains itself with Zak Starkey's snare-heavy drumming.
The mini-opera, and the album, close with two of the disc's most powerful tracks. After a big riff opening, "Mirror Door" runs through a list of dead musicians, reflecting on the past while embracing the uncertainty of the future (how bad can it be if Curtis Mayfield is waiting at the station, after all?). Daltrey sounds less than crisp on this track, but his devotion to the performance wins out. Closer "Tea & Theatre" allows the opera's surviving two band members [yes, this is fiction, but who isn't moved to hear this as Pete and Rog?] sitting down and dealing with loss and mortality. The band's employment of a programmed drum track here adds a sterile atmosphere that not only suggests loss (especially of Keith Moon), but serves as an effective juxtaposition against the restrained but heartfelt lyrical delivery.
Endless Wire turns out to be more effective and more coherent than it has any right to be. Townshend's more serious than perhaps he needs to be (or used to be), but he manages to get across some heavy material without letting it squash his artistry. This incarnation of the Who stands up fine under the burden of history, and let's just acknowledge that it's its own thing. It's been a Jesus-lifetime worth since we've gotten a Who album this good, and the group tackles a growing world of concerns with the grace and enthusiasm to prove that it's no longer up to Mike Post to turn us inside out.