In a recent interview, Pete Townshend explained that he has always viewed the rock-star phenomenon “with immense disdain”. It’s no surprise, then, that on The Who’s first album in 13 years, the band sound as restless and searching as they’ve ever been.
Townshend and Daltrey didn’t work together in the studio, but their chemistry is perfectly balanced. Unlike some of their peers, they’re reluctant to flirt with current music trends unless it suits their own sound. On the surface, Who sounds like a classic Who album, whether it’s Daltrey’s gruff snarl on “Ball and Chain”, or the mournful harmonica on “I’ll Be Back”, or the chirruping “Baba O’Riley” synths of “Street Song”. But then you have Daltrey singing through a vocoder on “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” and an opening riff on “Break the News” that, bizarrely, recalls the 2012 hit “Wake Me Up” by the late Swedish DJ Avicii. It seems these old dogs have learnt some new tricks.
In the current political climate, it’s difficult not to read “Rocking in Rage” as an embittered rattle against the so-called “war against free speech”, with its opening salvo: “If I can’t speak my truth/ For fear of being abused/ Might as well be a mute/ My voice never used.” It reminds me of Daltrey’s recent comments about Brexit; in a snarky Sky News interview, he dismissed concerns for the music industry once the UK leaves the EU, suggesting that “[his] generation” was the only one he cared about. There are moments when Townshend stops questioning his own relevancy, but to dubious effect: “Beads on a String” is a limp metaphor for human connection, while “Hero Ground Zero” is just as clumsy.
It’s the musicianship that’s most impressive here. Even the clunkiest of lyrics are rescued by steely guitar licks and sharp percussion; closing track “She Rocked My World” unfurls with a deft piano intro from Townshend, accompanied by a Latin-influenced guitar and the subtle intricacies of Pino Palladino on bass. Beneath that languid tempo, the fire is still burning.