ALBUM REVIEW: The Who Come Full Circle on ‘WHO’

Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey finally figured out how to forge on.

As Mini Music Critic’s resident old fart (I’ll be 50 in March), I’ve set before myself the challenge of making you kids care about an album by guys who are old enough to be my father. Challenge accepted! So gather ‘round young-ins and make yourself comfy. Does anyone need a drink?

Thirty years ago, it’s the summer of 1989. My best friend and I are beyond excited to see The Who’s reunion tour. I get to see my bass hero John Entwistle, while everyone else is focusing on the rest of the band. Opening for The Who were the Fabulous Thunderbirds (who were good) and some up-and-coming youngster named Stevie Ray Vaughan. (It is a grave understatement to say his death a little over a year later was devastating, especially for those of us who got to see him live.) Vaughan played with a fiery intensity that we took for granted would be on full display by the headliners. To this day, I can still remember his guitar solo during “Voodoo Chile” literally piercing my spine! And I remember thinking, I’ll bet The Who are going to be just as intense.

They didn’t even come close.

Few concerts have disappointed me on such a grand scale. In addition to going through the motions on the same songs on the then-fledgling classic rock radio (but this time with an overblown 12-piece band), they did a cover of CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” that was so bizarre it suggested even The Who were wondering who they were! We didn’t know there were going to be more (many more) reunion tours after this initial run, but after that show, I hoped it was their last. 

I’m glad they didn’t listen to me.

Roger Daltrey claimed earlier this year that The Who’s first studio album in 13 years—WHO—was their best since Quadrophenia. Such talk would seem foolish and blustery if the goods couldn’t be delivered. The fact is, Daltrey was understating it: this album ranks right up there with that original golden run through Quadrophenia. This is not to take anything away from the unmatched and unmatchable chemistry of the original power quartet that put out that string of albums (and I’d even throw in The Who By Numbers). But anyone with ears could hear the slow drop in quality in their music as the drugs and excess began to take its toll, culminating in the death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978. Once he was gone, so went that chemistry.

This album reveals an inescapable fact that has eluded Who fans like myself for all these years: in the end, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are The Who. Period. Everyone who’s come and gone, from the beginning right thru this album, have added their own color to the sound; but it has always revolved around Townshend’s songs and Daltrey’s unmistakable ability to bring out the soul in each one.

Yes, no one can play like John Entwistle or Keith Moon, and that’s the whole point: this album finds Townshend and Daltrey finally allowing themselves to forge the band in their own image and not be locked into a certain era or sound. And these songs, like Daltrey stated, are truly some of the best of Townshend’s career. The fact that Daltrey sounds more vital and inspired than at any time in the last couple of decades, makes this album that much sweeter.

No one knows the risk of trying to scale the heights of their heyday more than Daltrey and Townshend, who’ve failed many times since the death of Moon. Yet a large part of what makes this album work is the fact the past 20 years have seen a blossoming friendship that eluded them in the ’60s and ’70s. In fact, it was Daltrey who challenged Townshend to write these songs: Daltrey knows better than anyone the songwriting gift Townshend has, sometimes even better than Pete himself.

But does it sound like a Who album? The answer to that is “define that sound.” The only Who albums I can say sound alike are Face Dances and It’s Hard, and those are hardly good standards by which to define The Who. The reason this album works is because it has so many moments that bring to mind those early albums that come across as loving tribute to their past instead of cynical ploys to remind you who they used to be.

The Who are no strangers to self-reference: they’ve practically been doing it since day one, never more so than on Quadrophenia. Here they take that self-referencing and turn it into an art form. Look no further than the song “Detour” (The Who were formerly known as The Detours) that not only gets the sound just right but also adds mischievous touches like the bass harmonica from “Join Together” commenting in your left ear. Or in the grand album opener, which features a subtle chorus singing “whoooooo are you” underneath the chorus. The musicians gathered for this album play with equal parts reverence to the past and celebration of the two principals who match their younger counterparts at every step.

But wait, I can hear someone saying: you haven’t answered the question of why I should fork over my hard-earned bread for this album when there are other albums competing for my attention from folks my age who speak my language. A fair point. All I can say is there’s something to be said for listening to those who came before us and lived through those days before we were born. The nice thing about this album is that it’s wise without being preachy, while at the same time acknowledging they did and said some things that should’ve got them killed when they were young.

Personally, I’m glad they made this album. This isn’t so much a return to form as it is finally picking up where they left off when Keith Moon died. If anything this album shows there’s plenty of gas left in the tank. But if this should end up being The Who’s final curtain call, they can say better now than at any other time in their career they are going out on top.

PS: don’t worry about picking up any deluxe edition of this album. The original 11 songs are more than enough and the demos don’t add anything.

Score: 🎯🎯🎯🎯.5 / 5