Designed by Peter Blake, the cover art for WHO is arguably be more than just a Rorschach test. The patchwork of cultural reference images conceivably mirrors the delicate interrelationships of those contributing to this twelfth album by the iconic band, their first since 2006’s Endless Wire.
But the pop artist who also designed the front of Sgt Pepper (and, not coincidentally, the cover of the first post-Keith Moon Who album, Face Dances), is hardly the only participant in these proceedings with some history. Vocalist Roger Daltrey and guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend are multi-decade collaborators, the surviving members of the classic Who lineup that once included bassist John Entwistle and drummer Moon and they have made the wise decision to enlist the assistance of musicians who’ve toured with them regularly for roughly-twenty years.
Little wonder so much of WHO, like the appropriate opener “All This Music Must Fade,” evokes the vintage sound of the quartet. Pino Palladino took over the bass in 2002 upon the sudden passing of Entwistle on the eve of a tour, while the son of Ringo Starr, Zak Starkey (who received a kit from Keith Moon as a child) has drummed with Townshend and Daltrey since the late Nineties; the pair is not as combustible a rhythm section as their forebears, but on tracks like “Street Song,” their playing resounds with a comparable majesty.
As do the grand power chords from Pete Townshend. His slashing, in conjunction with layered keyboard/synthesizer work plus orchestration on “Hero Ground Zero,” vividly echoes landmarks like Who’s Next and Quadrophenia. But Roger Daltrey’s voice is almost as readily identifiable with the sound of the Who and he sounds remarkably strong (and fully in line with his no-nonsense personality) on the insouciant “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise.” Yet the seemingly ageless front man doesn’t just belt it out with a passion: the control he exerts to gently deliver the lyrics of “Beads On One String” is the work of someone who truly knows how to sing. And he sounds perfectly natural in doing so, no more self-conscious than his partner’s love/hate approach to his main instrument.
The veterans’ embrace of their signature style on WHO may well be a moot point. Novice listeners who’ve recently seen them and their expanded lineup of accompanists in concert might only want to hear the famous refrain of “Baba O’ Riley.” And while long-term devotees could be likewise impressed with the uplifting energy reverberating from “Ball and Chain”—similar to that which Townshend, Daltrey and company on stage inject into warhorses like “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—those long-term fans could conceivably find the sensation too familiar for its own good.
After all, it was over four decades ago the Who’s chief composer wrote “Music Must Change” on Who Are You. But the acoustic guitars that dominate “Rockin’ In Rage” and “She Rocked My World” aren’t the only telling factors, apart from the author’s more than merely clever plays on the main word in those titles: these affectionate testimonies of devotion sound like nothing so much as a mutual dialogue between the two principals here, expressions of loyalty between men who’ve had their differences over the years (as well as their individual personal challenges), only to find their creative chemistry very much intact.
If these last two songs here seem better suited to a Pete Townshend solo album, then the addition of three more cuts to a deluxe edition of WHO also makes more sense. But without those latter extra numbers, or any grand theme to speak of otherwise, the near-sixty minutes of music of these eleven tracks certainly comprises a worthwhile statement unto itself (notwithstanding a relative sag in clarity and purpose during the juxtaposed “I’ll Be Back” and “Break The News,” a weak song of sibling Simon Townshend’s). If this LP isn’t so groundbreaking as Tommy, it’s definitely a logical extension of The Who By Numbers and certain preferable to the forced and pedestrian It’s Hard.