“I’m rocking in rage, well past my prime, denying the curtain…” So bellows Roger Daltrey, 13 years on from The Who’s last studio album and 55 years removed from his earnest desire to cark it long before he ever did anything as ‘OK boomer’ as, I dunno, going all Brexit. He doesn’t sound too far past his prime – at 75 his voice could still flatten a rainforest faster than Bolsonaro – but you do wonder why ‘WHO’ exists at all.
It’s not as though The Who are an unstoppable creative powerhouse with a crippling addiction to recording studio sandwiches – their last album ‘Endless Wire’ was their first for 24 years, and that had a mini-opera burning a hole in Pete Townshend’s pocket. Nor will it give them the contemporary profile boost of a hit single, make them anything like the money they’re accustomed to, or increase the ticket-shifting power of a band that already boast one of the greatest canons in rock’n’roll history.
Nor are they back in the studio hothouse because they’ve much to say about the tawdry shitshow that is 2019. ‘Rockin’ In Rage’ is the only song on the album proper with any real lyrical fire to it, and that’s just Daltrey complaining about getting backlash for speaking his mind, presumably on Brexit: “If I can’t speak my truth for fear of being abused I might as well be a mute,” he snaps over an AC/DC charge, like right-wing rockers tend to do these days, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so out on the margin… I feel like a leper”.
Chunky blues rocker ‘Ball And Chain’, previously called ‘Guantanamo’, highlights the forgotten victims of American rendition and the three bonus tracks tacked onto the end of the record, all sung by Townshend, include an anti-war flamenco psych piece called ‘This Gun Will Misfire’ and a folky portrait of homelessness in ‘Danny And My Ponies’. But otherwise The Who seem to be here largely to reminisce.
Brashly, too. ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Wise’ almost reads like 75-year-old Daltrey talking to the drunk and tardy 20-year-old who sang ‘My Generation’. “All that crap that we did brought us money, I guess,” he howls, “and those snotty young kids were a standing success… We tried hard to stay young… I don’t wanna get wise.” The very Tommy-sounding ‘All This Music Must Fade’ decries the transience of pop culture, while basically declaring open season on plagiarising old Who songs: “I don’t mind all the guys ripping off my song… All this sound that we share has already been played”. All of which suggests that The Who have made ‘WHO’ to prove to themselves they’ve still got it.
And they have. In spades. Much of the record could stand proudly alongside their classics, whether it’s ‘All This Music Must Fade’ revisiting ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ‘I’m Free’, the windmilling bombast of ‘Hero Ground Zero’, the skiffle blues stomp of ‘Detour’ or the authentically ‘60s garage crackle that makes bonus track ‘Got Nothing To Prove’ sound like a lost Merseybeat hit drenched in ‘Delilah’ horns.
There are only two major mis-steps – ‘Beads On One String’ is the kind of amorphous soft rock balladry that Sting used to make in the ‘90s and Townshend’s easy listening ‘I’ll be Back’ descends into a plain awful vocodered rant.
But otherwise ‘WHO’ either recaptures the band’s root ferocity or explores new territory with style: the smoky tango of ‘She Rocked My World’, with Daltrey growling like Tom Waits on Viagra, or ‘Break The News’, a folk rocker with a contemporary Mumford crunch. Keep denying that curtain, boys, we’ll tell you when you finally get old.
- Release date: December 6
- Record label: Polydor