The Who retired following their 1982 farewell tour but like Frank Sinatra's frequent retreats from the stage, it was not a permanent goodbye. Seven years later, the band -- Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle; that is, Keith Moon's replacement Kenny Jones wasn't invited back -- embarked on a reunion tour, and ever since then the band was a going concern. Perhaps not really active -- they did not tour on a regular basis, they did not record outside of a version of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" for the 1991 Elton John and Bernie Taupin tribute album Two Rooms -- but they were always around, playing tribute gigs and reviving old projects, such as a mid-'90s stab at Quadrophenia, before truly reuniting as an active touring band after the turn of the century. Just as they were reaching cruising altitude in 2002, bad luck and tragedy intervened, as Entwistle died from a heart attack on the eve of a summer tour, leaving Townshend and Daltrey the only surviving original members. Their decision to continue performing as the Who rankled some longtime fans -- many of whom thought they should have packed it in after Moon's death in 1978 -- but the ensuing tours helped them work through their grief, not only over Entwistle's death but during the fallout surrounding Pete Townshend's arrest for accessing child porn on the internet. Townshend was cleared of all charges, and throughout the turmoil of the scandal he had no stronger defender than Daltrey. According to several interviews with both men, the process brought them closer together and they began seriously talking about recording a new Who studio album -- something that had not happened since It's Hard in 1982. They tentatively dipped their toes in the water with a couple of strong new songs on the 2004 hits comp Then and Now, and two years later, they followed through with the long-promised, long-awaited Endless Wire.
Opening with a synth riff that strongly recalls, if not directly quotes, the famed loop underpinning "Baba O'Reilly," Endless Wire often hearkens back to previous Who albums in its themes, structure, and sound. The "Baba O'Reilly" riff pops up in "Fragments," the pummeling triplets of "The Punk Meets the Godfather" resurface in "Mike Post Theme." Like The Who by Numbers, it has its fair share of stark acoustic introspection. Like The Who Sell Out and A Quick One, it closes with a mini-rock opera, this one called "Wire & Glass." This closing suite also shares a lineage with Townshend's 1993 solo album Psychoderelict, a record that's not well loved but one that is connected thematically to Lifehouse Chronicles, his often-muddled yet often-intriguing futuristic rock opera that seemed to suggest portions of a technologically saturated internet age. Such ideas bubble up throughout Endless Wire and not just on "Wire & Glass," yet that opera specifically shares a character with Psychoderelict in Ray High, a rock star who was the central figure in that 1993 opus and functions as a semi-autobiographical distancing device for Townshend, particularly on this record where the narrative ebbs and flows and sometimes disappears completely. Since the whole of Townshend's rock operas always were overshadowed by the strength of their individual parts -- musically and emotionally, "Pinball Wizard," "Bargain," "Behind Blue Eyes," "The Real Me" and "Love Reign O'er Me" carried as great a weight, if not greater, on their own as they did as part of a larger theme -- this is not unusual or unwelcome, because the focus turns away from the specifics of the narrative and to the merits of the songs and the Who's performances, and how they connect at a gut level.
And, like much of the best of the Who's work, the best of Endless Wire does indeed connect at a gut level, even if it's in a considerably different way than it was in the past: instead of being visceral and immediate, this is music carries a slow burn. This is partially because they are no longer driven by Moon and Entwistle, but quite frankly, this most manic of rhythm sections never really anchored the Who; Townshend always did with his furious windmills and propulsive rhythms, and there was never any question that this, along with his songs, formed the complex, contradictory heart of the Who, while Daltrey gave the songs both muscle and a commonality, undercutting Townshend's pretensions -- or giving him a voice behind which to hide, a voice to act out his best and worst impulses. After all the upheaval of the first part of the 2000s, Townshend needed to have Daltrey interpret his songs, which do confront many tough emotions and questions regarding faith, mortality and persecution, albeit often in oblique ways. For a writer as obsessed with concepts and fictionalized autobiography as Townshend, obliqueness serves him well, and often turns out to be more revealing than blunt confessionals, as is the case with "A Man in a Purple Dress," a searing, bitter, anti-religion folk tune reportedly inspired by a viewing of The Passion of the Christ but unmistakably bearing echoes of Townshend's treatment in the tabloids during his 2003 scandal. Townshend does not sing this tune, Daltrey does, and it's an angry performance that leans heavily on his blunt force, but also reveals a new subtlety that serves him very well throughout Endless Wire. Instead of powering through the songs as he could tend to do in the past, Daltrey is truly interpreting Townshend's songs here, giving them nuanced, textured readings that cut close to the emotional quick of the tunes. His voice may have lost some of its range and power over the years, but Daltrey has developed into a better singer, and he helps ground Endless Wire, which doesn't meander so much as it overreaches, a trend not uncommon to either the Who or Townshend. Even the best Who albums had a tendency to not quite follow through on their concepts -- the mock pirate-radio broadcast of The Who Sell Out is abandoned on the second side, Who's Next was pulled together from the flailing Lifehouse -- but even so they were nevertheless triumphs given the sheer power of the band, or Townshend's writing. Here, the band is indeed changed, and while they have top-notch professional support from drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Pino Palladino, they do not sound like a session band: they sound like the Who, only older, with their boundless energy replaced by a bittersweet melancholy undercurrent. It's a sound that fits Townshend's new songs, alternately sweetly sad, bitterly reflective and, despite it all, cautiously optimistic. Unlike the fussy theatricality of The Iron Man or the impenetrable mess that was Psychoderelict -- or any Townshend project since It's Hard, really -- Endless Wire is not a slave to its concept; the songs fuel the album instead of the other way around. Even when it goes off the tracks -- and it does, most grandly on the bizarre "In the Ether," where Townshend affects Tom Waits' patented growl -- it feels as if it was written from the heart, which is why it's always appealing even though it feels curiously disjointed, with the The Who by Numbers-styled first half not quite synching up with the mini-opera that dominates the second side. It may not add up to a totally satisfying whole, yet within both halves of Endless Wire there is much to treasure: on the first half, there's the incendiary "A Man in a Purple Dress," the powerful yet understated "Mike Post Theme," the delicate "God Speaks of Marty Robbins," a surging rocker in "It's Not Enough" (whose lyrics are riddled with the self-doubt of Empty Glass) and the sweet song sketch "You Stand by Me"; on the second, there's the mini-opera of "Wire & Glass," a ten-song suite beginning with the rampaging "Sound Round" and closing with the haunting "Tea & Theatre," that manages to touch on every one of the band's strengths. Taken on its own, "Wire & Glass" does stand as the greatest Who music since Who Are You, so it's a bit hard not to wish that the entire album had its thematic cohesion, muscular melody, and sense of purpose, but if it meant losing the quite wonderful highlights of the first half, it may not have been worth it because they're not only strong songs, they give this record its ragged heart. No, Endless Wire is not perfect -- its parts don't quite fit together, and not all of the parts work on their own -- but it is an endearingly human, impassioned work that more than justifies Townshend's and Daltrey's decision to continue working as the Who. Hopefully, it will lead to another record or two but if it doesn't, Endless Wire is certainly a better final Who album than It's Hard, which is quite an accomplishment after a quarter-century hiatus.