Review: The Who ‘WHO’

Words by Mitch Therieau
Graphic by Supplied

I was in high school when the Who played the Super Bowl. A dedicated Led Zeppelin partisan —they and the Who were mutually exclusive in my mind—I sneered at Roger Daltrey’s shying from the high notes, Keith Moon replacement Zac Starkey’s lackluster drumming, and a porkpie hat wearing Pete Townshend’s spastic fits of whammy bar flailing on guitar. It was the saddest halftime show I’d ever seen. “Sad” was the word I used when I told my friends about it, but really, what I felt was low-level confusion. Who were these people jumping around and striking rock-god poses, and why was I supposed to care? To 15-year-old me, the Who were a relic from a different age.

Nearly a decade and several farewell tours later, the Who have released WHO, their first album since 2006’s Endless Wire. It isn’t the longest gap in their discography (24 years separate Endless Wire from 1982’s It’s Hard) but it’s been a dense thirteen years of pop-music history. The difference between 2006 and 2019 is, after all, the difference between the heyday of Guitar Hero, the iPod, and CD sales and on one end, and the dominance of streaming, poptimism and growing dissatisfaction with old white men on the other. What I felt intuitively in 2010 is even truer today. The Who have returned to a changed field.

WHO is an album that understands this. It expects listeners to come to it with skepticism, if not outright hostility. Opening track ‘All This Music Must Fade’ kicks off with the line: “I don’t care / I know you’re gonna hate this song.” Daltrey bellows it with conviction, only a slight sheen of pitch correction audible on top of his voice.

It’s a moment that is simultaneously aggressive and self-aware. (Of course, if you’re already a dedicated Who fan, you won’t hate this song.) What follows is three minutes of maximum R&B, bright slashing guitar chords, Keith Moon-lite drum excursions, and earworm melodies. It’s a concentrated dose of Who-ness, distilled to its rawest elements.

Still, this isn’t Who-ness as a timeless essence. On a whole, WHO is no pure nostalgic retreat to formula. In fact, it’s surprisingly anchored in 2019. Despite the “I don’t care’s” in his lyrics, it’s clear that Townshend is thinking about life online. Judging from his complaint audiences will hate the opening track because it’s not young or diverse, and the whole first verse of ‘Rockin’ in Rage’ (“If I can’t speak my truth for fear of bein’ abused / I might as well be a mute, my voice never used / I’ll be maligned, I’ll be distant and trolled / If I can’t be aligned, I’ll be thrown in the cold”) it seems Townshend is working through some angst about what someone like the Tory-sympathetic Daltrey might label ‘callout culture.’ In 1967 Townshend and Daltrey gave us The Who Sell Out. One might wonder if the two considered calling this one The Who Get Cancelled.

In a way, then, the opening moments of ‘All This Music Must Fade’ set the best and worst things about having new Who music in 2019 side by side, and then dare us to separate them. If you want the explosive energy, operatic vision and canny pop craftsmanship, the song seems to say, you have to deal with two 70-somethings raging about the prospect of getting canceled too. The rage, misguided as it is, is what drives it all, and what separates WHO from, say, Paul McCartney and his recent bid for Top 40 clout (which producer Ryan Tedder imbued with all the freshness and excitement of an outlet mall). While McCartney’s recent work doesn’t seem to have any idea why it exists or what, exactly, it’s trying to achieve, the Who have found their mission. WHO provides a new channel through which to focus that blistering anger that makes it all hang together.

The songs of WHO also testify to the long shadow of the band’s influence. It takes only a slight twist of the imagination to picture ‘Got Nothing To Prove,’ which features a vocal Townshend recorded in 1966, as a song by a modern-day bedroom pop oddball like Ariel Pink or Amen Dunes. The slicker ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Wise,’ which may be the album’s strongest song, is a reminder that we have the Who to thank for power pop as well. Rather than doubling down on their ‘60s roots, the song finds the band packing in the kinds of sugary-dense guitars that would be at home in a Tommy Keene arrangement. Hearing the band taking inspiration from, or at least converging with, the artists who brought power pop forward rather than slavishly replicating the old mod sounds is a fascinating double reflection. It suits them well. The Who would make a great Velvet Crush tribute band.

Call it double reflection or call it time warping, there’s a curious temporal logic to WHO. I Don’t Wanna Get Wise’ finds a ‘60s band doing ‘80s-flavored power pop in 2019. ‘Got Nothing to Prove’ reinvigorates an old recording from the ‘60s with what Townshend has described as an ‘Austin Powers’ big-band horn section. It’s a ’90s take on the ‘60s that somehow ends up sounding current. Even the breezy acoustic tune ‘Break the News’ is less an attempt to catch up with the times and more proof that the times have looped back around to the Who.

In the spirit of all this time-bending, WHO inspired me to rewatch that 2010 Super Bowl performance. While some of the things I had initially found ridiculous were still at the very least highly suspect, this time what I saw was not a bunch of spent rock stars lurching their way through The Hits. As Daltrey absolutely nailed the scream at the end of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ I felt the formidable power of a band living a healthy double life. On the one hand, their embodied life onstage, Daltrey’s tuneful growl deepening with age; on the other hand, their extended musical life as icons and influences, as both symbols of classic-rock excess and secret patron saints of bedroom pop. At its best, WHO is a riveting synthesis, tying these two lives together in fresh and compelling ways.

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