First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2006, Volume 13, #12
Written by John Metzger
"I’m sorry that as a direct result of the delay in involving my fellow musicians, Who Tour stalwart Zak Starkey is not better represented on this recording," writes Pete Townshend in the liner notes for Endless Wire, The Who’s first studio album in 24 years. Such an admission comes honestly, and even if the band did overcome the 1978 loss of drummer Keith Moon — first with Kenney Jones and more currently with Starkey — there is little doubt that, with all due respect to stand-in Pino Palladino, the more recent passing of bass player John Entwistle ought to have struck a fatal blow to the outfit. Townshend, for his part, seems to know it, but in the end, Starkey’s lack of availability may have been a blessing in disguise. As his contribution to Black Widow’s Eyes attests, he certainly could have added a more primal explosiveness to tracks such as Fragments and Mike Post Theme. Yet, with half of its members gone, The Who truly had no choice but to alter its approach, and had he been more involved, Starkey unwittingly might have kept the band from fostering the forward-thinking moves that it needed to foment.
As it is, Endless Wire is a flawed affair that finds The Who publicly grappling with its past and struggling to come to terms with its present. Some of the selections (such as A Man in a Purple Dress, which vents against the imperious attitudes of high-profile religious figures) are politically charged; others (such as It’s Not Enough, which essentially is a "thank you" note to the band’s devoted followers) strike a more personal chord. Elsewhere, there are tracks that falter in their attempts to recapture the rough-and-tumble arena rock of The Who’s glory days in the early ’70s, and there are tunes that employ sparse, demo-like frameworks in order to build upon Townshend’s solo material and, hence, stake out new ground for the ensemble to explore. Throughout the set, Roger Daltrey does his best to bring the compositions to life. Although he sometimes is pushed into an uncomfortable position, he more often than not succeeds (as he always has) in matching strength with vulnerability in a way that lends greater emotional depth to the songs.
Although Endless Wire is less than 60 minutes in length, it plays exactly like a double album. Its latter half is based around Townshend’s latest mini-opera Wire & Glass, while its opening portion boasts material that, at first glance, is connected rather loosely to the main project. Not surprisingly, there are echoes of Tommy, Quadrophenia, Lifehouse, and, yes, even Psychoderelict scattered throughout the affair. Much like its predecessors, it is hinged upon Townshend’s wild imagination as well as his life’s experiences and his longstanding belief in the power of music. Consequently, Endless Wire is, in its own convoluted way, an extension of them all.
For certain, the storyline to Wire & Glass, which itself is based upon a series of internet posts that Townshend made under the working title The Boy Who Heard Music, will appear tangled to anyone who is seeking a narrative that is defined clearly. Yet, whether by accident or design, the vague telling of his tale — especially when combined with the reiteration of Fragments, We Got a Hit, and Endless Wire’s title track; the thematic concepts that are revisited on In the Ether; the intimacy of the acoustic, folk-oriented fare; and the discernable holes in The Who’s sonic assault that were left in the wake of Moon and Entwistle’s deaths — serves not to undermine the album’s cohesion but rather to bind its contents together more tightly. In essence, Endless Wire begins as the work of someone who is concerned about the durability of his legacy, but by the time that Wire & Glass has concluded, the album has become something greater. Within its 21 tracks, Townshend transforms his commentary upon the state of the music industry into the story of The Who. In the process, he makes peace with himself as he comes to understand that he, much like his heroes, will continue to live within the music that already is a part of history. This realization frees him to take more risks, the biggest of which was even daring to reincarnate his creatively dormant behemoth. That he and Daltrey have reunited to concoct an outing that is this ambitious is a pleasant surprise, but most important of all, Endless Wire is, despite the inherent messiness of its construction, far better than anyone could have (or should have) expected. ˝
Endless Wire is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box