By Jon M. Gilbertson
Strictly speaking, Endless Wire is the first full Who album in 24 years. But strictly speaking, it’s not an album made by the Who. And while it may be true that nobody is absolutely irreplaceable, the dearly departed Who rhythm section of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle come close.
So what, or Who, remains? These days it’s just singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist, songwriter and general mastermind Pete Townshend. With the support of a few other musicians, politely listed in “Principal” and “Guest” classifications, they continue the group name. The recognizable group sound is another matter.
Townshend does less well, however, when trying to frame the songs that rely for support upon whatever melodies he can wrest from his guitar(s). The latter half of Endless Wire is taken up with “Wire & Glass,” a mini-opera (not a la “A Quick One While He’s Away” ) that seems constantly to be looking back on old, familiar themes: rock & roll, the deceptive innocence of youth, the inexorable decay of years.
The themes are not without interest, but Townshend can’t make them coalesce. He never really could, as proven by Tommy and Quadrophenia and even his solo album White City, but that music was strong enough to leap the narrative and intellectual gaps. This music – even the first half of Endless Wire, which is given over to more various thoughts and more varied songs than “Wire & Glass” – favors sub-thematic structure over genuine artistry.
The most glaring difference between the modern Who and the old Who, besides the absent cohorts, is that their music now offers moments and flashes rather than journeys and explosions. It presents the lovely bitter folk music of “A Man in a Purple Dress” and the soft coda of “Tea & Theatre.” In another 24 years, Who’s Next and Empty Glass will probably remain in the collective memory. Endless Wire probably won’t.