They famously sang “I hope I die before I get old,” but after 55 years, 11 albums, the invention of the ‘rock opera’, 100 million+ record sales and a well-earned seat in the pantheon of rock greats, The Who are exactly that. Or, at least what’s left of them are, anyway.
They may not be the band they once were (literally – there are three session drummers and two different bassists on this album alone) but the 74-year-old Pete Townshend and 75-year-old Roger Daltrey apparently remain determined to have a say.
Some of their commentary has been more contentious than most, however. In the run-up to their 12th studio album's release, Townshend's recent distasteful statements about how he was glad that former members Keith Moon and John Entwistle were dead were greeted with consternation from fans. He later clarified that although he knew it was selfish, he was simply "angry at them for dying".
His differing views from Daltrey on topics like Brexit (“I’m a Remainer, he is a Brexiteer; I believe in God, he doesn’t”) and the fact that the pair reportedly communicate through their management also suggests that their famously fractious relationship may not be as mended as we were led to believe.
With that in mind, the opening line of this album – written by Townshend for Daltrey to sing – seems particularly loaded: “I don’t care, I know you’re gonna hate this song / That’s fair, we never really got along”.
As it happens, the follow-up to 2006’s Endless Wire is both as reliable and as uninspiring as you might expect for two musicians who have been making music together for over 50 years – even if they recorded their parts separately. Unlike that album, there are no mini-operas or concepts tying this group of Townshend-penned rock songs together.
The guitarist's trademark key and tempo changes are in abundance on All This Music Must Fade and Detour, the latter's organ outro perhaps a subtle nod to Baba O'Riley. Ball and Chain is a by-the-numbers protest song railing against the US government, as Daltrey's enjoyably grizzly voice spits "Down in Guantanamo, we still got the ball and chain/ That pretty piece of Cuba designed to cause men pain", while Beads on One Chain takes a softer approach to a plea for world peace, its religious undertones in accordance with the synthy keyboards and soulful backing vocals.
The best songs here, however, are the ones that leave the entreaties and ‘Important Messages’ to one side and simply get on with things. The self-referential I Don’t Wanna Get Wise is as close as Townshend’s lyrics come to nostalgia, with memories of themselves as “snotty young kids” set against a bristling, jerky rock beat.
Townshend takes lead vocals on the surprising I’ll Be Back, a loungey 1970s MOR affair replete with strings and gloopy keyboards, while the brisk, handclap-led strum of Break the News – written by his brother Simon – is another gussied-up love song.
It’s difficult to tell if The Who made this album to prove a point, or because they thought there was genuine artistic merit to it. Perhaps it was for both reasons – although admittedly, neither are fully convincing.
If this album does turn out to be their swansong, it won’t be the one that fans remember them for but as a collection of serviceable rock tracks to nod along to for old time’s sake, it’s just fine.