Not only did the death wish expressed 55 years ago in “My Generation” not come true, but the Who have now become the first major rock act of their generation to come up with a whole album that’s actually about getting old. And this from an outfit that pretty much entirely skipped its own middle age, having released just one album (2006’s little noticed “Endless Wire”) in the long, stingy lapse between their supposed 1982 swan song, “It’s Hard,” and the present day. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do on what songwriter-guitarist-auteur Pete Townshend is pissed off about now, and what he’s going to have Roger Daltrey shout in our ear about.
The word “old” feels wrong, of course, when 75 is the new 40 and the Who have been bashing it out on the road just like Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, the whole OK-boomer lot of them playing like there was plenty of tomorrow. Amid that live vigor, McCartney and Mick & Keith aren’t so eager to devote nearly a whole album to ruminating on autumnal things. Townshend? Not so avoidant. On “Who,” the new record he’s made with the group’s other surviving lion-in-winter, Daltrey, Townshend seems like he couldn’t wait for his sunset years to creep up on him, if only so he could make good on a long-forestalled writing assignment.
“Who” is actually a fairly fun album about not particularly light subject matter — like whether the soul survives the body, or, more urgently, whether love and integrity survive feeling washed up. If a Dylan or Leonard Cohen approaches these topics, the mood is somber, but the Who have attempted something trickier, with a set of mostly hard-rocking songs that make them sound not a day over 30, addressing lyrical concerns that aren’t a day under 60. It’s a chemistry experiment in which intimations of mortality and a half-rueful, half-eff-you attitude have been put into a Bunsen burner with Pete’s old-school windmill chords and Rog’s undiminished, wonderfully blustery, occasionally tender belting.
The feisty opener, “All This Music Must Fade,” could be retitled “OK Millennial,” with Townshend, using Daltrey as his puff-chested mouthpiece, challenging anyone who might want to rattle on about aging musicians’ irrelevance. “It’s not new, it’s not diverse / It won’t light up your parade / It’s just simple verse,” they declare, reminding Generation Pitchfork that their stuff’s a half-second away from being dust in the wind, too.
There are hints of mirth amid the crotchetiness. Right in the opening line, when Daltrey sings “I don’t care, I know you’re gonna hate this song,” followed later by “I don’t mind other guys ripping off my song.” you can’t help noticing how exactly it matches the meter of “I don’t mind other guys dancing with my girl,” from “The Kids are Alright.” It’s the first of several Easter eggs in an album where the duo seem to be blatantly copping the feel, if not actual chords, of standards like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Just Another Tricky Day.”
The classic-era album this one might remind you of, in combining Townshend’s autobiographical thoughts with a solid mid-tempo rock work ethic, is “The Who by Numbers.” It’s not that good — let’s be honest and say this isn’t an album you’re going to return to the way you would a “Quadrophenia” — but it does feel like a handwritten letter from a friend who’s been through some of the same shit you have.
Occasionally, as a writer, Townshend allows himself the nostalgia that’s inherent in the album’s sound. There’s a strange, sweet, not entirely successful ballad, “I’ll Be Back,” ostensibly about Townshend wanting to be reincarnated into another life with his true love. Oddly and kind of lovably, it takes an incongruous time-out for a nostalgic bridge in which Daltrey half-raps, “Only Faces were doing toots, we had no cash for that / Just hash if we could catch for that,” as if their inability to afford that other band’s drugs reinforced their ‘60s scrappy cred.
But the album mostly stays in the here-and-now, with one eye half-cast on the hereafter, as Daltrey and Townsend sound pissed off about not being in their prime and cocky to still being standing anyway. They question the universe itself, and its habit of putting expiration dates on things, in “I Don’t Wanna Get ‘Wise’,” asking, “Why set a fire you plan to douse?” Later, they roar about “defying the clock, in one last rampage… / Well past my prime, denying the curtain, wasting no time / I thought I’d be calmer, not rockin’ in rage.” Allusions to Dylan Thomas: surely intentional.
Also very deliberate is the irony in how this album could easily be meant to stand as the band’s collective last word, even while Townshend and Daltrey sound like they’re ready to bang out 10 more closing statements where this one came from.
Producers: Pete Townsend & D. Sardy. Roger Daltrey’s vocal production: Dave Eringa. Associate producer: Myles Clarke. Recording engineer: James Monti. Mixer: D. Sardy. Musicians: Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Benmont Tench, Pino Palladino, Zac Starkey, Carla Azar, Gus Seyffert, Josh Tyrell, Rowan McIntosh, Dave Sardy, Joey Waronker, Matt Chamberlain, Martin Matchelar, Andrew Synowiec, Gordon Giltrap, Fergus Gerrand. Orchestrators: Pete Townshend, Rachel Fuller, Martin Batchelar.