Endless Wire – The Who
High expectations are always the bane of a reunion, especially when it involves new material rather than a sentimental journey through past glories. If it wasn’t the root cause, such experiences certainly can explain the phrase of “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
In the case of The Who, Roger Daltrey finally got his wish and badgered Pete Townshend enough following the death of bassist extraordinaire John Entwistle to write a batch of new songs that could be recorded under The Who banner. It’s the first full album of brand spankin’ new numbers since 1982’s It’s Hard. The result is Endless Wire, a work that rests more towards the intimacy and experimentation of a Townshend solo album than the much-desired bluster of a Who record. It’s so full of ideas and dramatic underpinnings and surprises that at first listen, this longtime Who devotee, sat mute with disappointment.
It takes multiple listens to begin to grasp the lyrical and musical endeavors, to allow yourself to think beyond the two-minute blast of “I Can’t Explain,” apocalyptic grandeur of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and pop fodder such as “Squeeze Box.” None of that will be found here. Oh, there is the familiar rhythmic strumming that’s served Townshend well over four decades plus other subtle references to the band’s catalogue. But, overall, this is a new Who. Made out of necessity and desire into a form that finds as much interest in an acoustic guitar or mandolin anchoring the melody than an electric Gibson Les Paul feeding back. This doesn’t cause Endless Wire to be a laidback effort, just a change up of the musical arsenal used. Like “I’m One” off of Quadrophenia, “Man in a Purple Dress,” “God Speaks, Of Marty Robbins” and “You Stand By Me” become mesmerizing by their lack of volume.
Not surprisingly, it’s taken years, starts and stops as well as changing musical and thematic course to produce this release. And in some ways, it still sounds, at times, not fully formed. Endless Wire is split between nine tracks of Townshend ruminating on the type of matters that have dodged around in his mind for years technology, humanity and spirituality, how one interacts with the other with next to nothing set in stone. The second half consists of the mini-opera’, “Wire & Glass,” which is based on his novella The Boy Who Heard Music. It, too, tackles some of the same ideas as the earlier songs, but does this with a narrator Ray High, a former rock star now sanatorium resident with visions, and Gabriel, Josh and Leila, a trio who become one hit wonders that use the internet as a means to connect everyone to their own particular musical portrait. If it sounds somewhat convoluted, then you can think of this as the sequel to Townshend’s “Lifehouse” project, which aimed for lofty goals yet out of desperation at its formation begat Who’s Next.
The album opens with “Fragments,” a synthesized loop similar to the intro to “Baba O’Reilly.” Slowly it introduces the voices of Daltrey and Townshend into the mix. The song is repeated in “Fragment of Fragments” due to its significance as the major hit for the young musicians in the “Wire & Glass” portion. “Man in a Purple Dress” attacks the visual pompousness and arrogance of organized religion. “Mike Post Theme” comes close to past Who territory as it explores the comfort found in the familiar. Here, it’s the television themes of composer Mike Post. Townshend then introduces Ray High on “In the Ether” in a quizzical Tom Waits-like vocal style. Happily, he gives up on it to return to his own voice. It’s an odd choice, but it seems to be the type of thing that the duo embrace on “Endless Wire” the freedom to avoid recreating the classic rock that’s been imprinted on people’s minds.