Written by Tim Edgeworth
Many musical icons of the 60s have remained popular and relevant in the 21st Century: The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney. What distinguishes The Who, however, is that they seem to have been on the verge of breaking up for most of their 50-plus years together (and on one occasion actually did: they played their ‘Farewell Tour’ in 1982).
There has been a volatile relationship between lead singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend (drummer Keith Moon passed away in 1978, and bass guitarist John Entwistle followed in 2002), but they’ve held it together, and now they’re back with their first album in 13 years, Who.
Even 17 years after Entwistle’s death, The Who’s biggest problem is filling the void left by their departed rhythm section. Is it still The Who? On one hand, no, because the original four-man dynamic has been lost forever; but on the other hand, yes, because the core of The Who has always been Daltrey interpreting Townshend’s songs, which no one, not even Townshend himself, can do better.
With that being said, Who does seem to be suffering from an identity crisis at times, unsure of whether to try and recapture the old Who sound, or to push forward into new sonic directions.
Sometimes, such as on the second track “Ball & Chain” or the drum-led “Detour”, the album finds its groove. While some songs, such as the otherwise very pretty “Beads on One String”, sound uncomfortably like Townshend’s solo recordings with Daltrey as guest vocalist.
There is one song on Who in which The Who really feels like themselves. Track 6, “Hero Ground Zero”, features some great drumming from drummer Matt Chamberlain, and a vocal performance from Daltrey that belies his 75 years. It also features a full orchestra – something that has become a frequent feature of The Who’s live shows in recent years – providing an effective substitute for the flourishes once supplied by Moon and Entwistle, whilst also breaking away from the synthesizers that dominate the rest of the album.
So, is Who up to the gold standard of their classic albums? Not quite, although there are moments when the old fire is still there. With tracks like “Hero Ground Zero”, however, the band might really be on to something; if they go back into the studio with Matt Chamberlain and an orchestra in tow, that could very well come out with a classic.