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There’s a scene in the movie Mask where a doctor tries to inform the character played by Cher that her physically deformed teenage son doesn’t have long to live. She responds by pointing out that she’s been hearing exactly this “news” throughout the boy’s entire life, adding “If I dug his grave every time one of you geniuses said he was gonna die, I’d be in f*cking China by now.” It’s kind of a similar situation with the Who, as we’d be pretty far into the Eastern hemisphere by this point if we reached for the shovels every time anyone insisted that they – which is to say, the “real” Who, not just the band in name – had met their demise. Many in the original U.K. Mod scene felt that the Who were no longer the lads they knew or identified with after Tommy in 1968. Some claim that the band lost their way in the early Seventies when they helped to usher in arena rock, while others believe that the Who’s full creative capabilities were exhausted after 1973’s Quadrophenia. Probably the most common consensus holds that the true Who died with original drummer Keith Moon in 1978, or else certainly with founding bassist John Entwistle in 2002.
It’s just those legions who’ve given up on the Who – possibly decades ago – that the band’s surviving members, guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend and lead singer Roger Daltery, address right off the bat on “All This Music Must Fade,” the rock solid opening cut of WHO (only their second full-length release since 1982): “I don’t care // I know you’re gonna hate this song.” Townshend has been rolling out just this sort of cynical self-awareness at least as far back as “New Song” on 1978’s Who Are You. Still, “All This Music Must Fade” – between the production, Townshend’s trademark power chords and Daltrey’s distinct vocals (still a force to be reckoned with at age 75) is a not merely a legitimate Who track, but also one which should silence all but the most stubborn doubters.
This is the case with virtually the entire album, continuing with the powerful protest rocker “Ball and Chain” (even though Townshend borrows it from his solo career, released as “Guantanamo” in 2015). The appropriately titled “Detour” turns a corner with a less characteristic Who sound, alternating between a Burundi drum beat (once made famous by artists like Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant) and a borderline lounge-y counterpoint. It’s one of a number of songs which seesaw (successfully) between two musical styles, such as “Rockin’ In Rage,” which balances a Stephen Sondheim-eque verse with (yet another) classic Who chorus. However, “Hero Ground Zero” proves that Townshend is still more than capable of crafting a song with a comparatively simple structure. Almost as if to stress the album’s identity as a Who release, Townshend doesn’t take lead vocals until eight songs in, with “I’ll Be Back,” which sounds so much like a Paul McCartney composition you can’t help but wonder if McCartney didn’t actually have an un-credited hand in it.
The three tracks exclusive to the WHO Deluxe Edition all feature Townshend on lead vocals, almost suggesting that he had wanted to tack on a solo EP. “This Gun Will Misfire” doesn’t, once again demonstrating Townshend’s mastery at a more straightforward tune with a song that would have been at home on one of his early Eighties solo albums. He then goes back even further with “Got Nothing to Prove,” actually a previously unused demo from 1966 which palpably captures the band in their Mod heyday (the cut is a rarity in another sense: a bonus track that’s actually a bonus and not just window dressing).
“Got Nothing to Prove” also aptly describes the Who in 2019, universally recognized as one of rock’s all-time greatest and most influential bands (even punks give them their due). While with WHO, we may not have gotten the multimedia, conceptual project which Townshend had been publicly hinting at, the fact that so many veteran rockers are currently refusing to produce new music at all makes this album a defiance of convention. However, WHO is a brilliant and welcome return to form by any measure.