- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

The Who

Endless Wire

Republic

“Endless Wire,” the first album of new material by the Who in 24 years, goes a long way toward cleansing away the bitter aftertaste left by the string of weak albums with which the band ended its recording career.

What we hear on this new CD is the sound of a fallen giant righting itself. No mean feat, given the loss of the greatest rhythm section in rock music history (the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle).

The Who’s plunge started with “Who Are You” in 1975, and the group hit rock bottom in 1982 with “It’s Hard,” a squawk of a swan song.

This new, Pete Townshend-produced CD, four years in the making, boasts no showstoppers among its 19 tracks. Nevertheless, “Endless Wire” is a solid piece of work that shows Mr. Townshend back in fine form not only as a writer, but also as a singer who takes the lead on a half dozen mostly acoustic songs that are among the album’s best.

Mr. Townshend’s vocals are less age-worn than those of Roger Daltrey, who has a sprinkling of gravel in his throat these days. That certainly doesn’t stop the old microphone twirler from launching a full frontal vocal assault on his numbers.

“Endless Wire” kicks off with a synthesizer riff reminiscent of the famous intro to “Baba O’Riley,” a “Who’s Next” track. It’s hard to miss the “this is where we should have left off” symbolism of that opening.

Lyrical inspiration for the album ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime to the profane. Mike Post TV themes, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and the eyes of a female suicide bomber are among the muses that moved Mr. Townshend’s pen.

Of the latter, “Black Widow Eyes,” Mr. Townshend says in track notes issued with press copies of the album that it is about “falling in love when we don’t want to, or expect to.” It was inspired by a news account of a man who reported being smitten by the “beautiful, penetrating eyes” of a female terrorist just before she blew herself up and sent him (literally) sailing through the blue.

“Two Thousand Years” longs for the second coming of Christ, while the singer acknowledges his own shortcomings: “Two thousand years I have waited, then find I can’t be perfect, not even a perfect snake. To know that we are hated, you suffer for my sake.”

God makes a return appearance in “God Speaks of Marty Robbins,” in which God is motivated to create the universe by the desire to hear the music of country-Western singer Marty Robbins (of “El Paso” fame). Stupid? Very, but somehow it works.

The Who have a go at organized religion — or at least the pomp, circumstance and “purple cloaks” of it — in “Man in a Purple Dress.” As ever, the more “dramatis personae” are written into the lyrics, the more Mr. Daltrey sinks his teeth and soul into the delivery.

Mr. Townshend, who ran afoul of the law recently for visiting child pornography Web sites (he claims he was doing editorial research), is back in confessional mode on another ballad, “You Stand by Me,” on which he sings his thanks to those who stood by him in his times of trouble.

The biggest “buzz” about the album is the 10-song mini rock opera “Glass and Wire,” based on Mr. Townshend’s novella, “The Boy Who Heard Music” (which is posted on his Web site). It begins when young 1960s musician Ray High has to rescue his dog from an estuary swarming with jellyfish, during which he sees a vision in the sky of “society strangled by wire and communications.”

Years later, three buddies form a band and stumble on Mr. High’s plan to use “the global wire network” for uniting the world through music. The rock opera climaxes with “Mirror Door” (shades of “Tommy”), in which the band holds a field-of-dreams-type charity concert featuring a bunch of mostly dead rock and pop stars.

The music is far better than the novella’s brutally lame plot, but only those who have read the book or Mr. Townshend’s track notes will have to ponder the tortured back story.

The album’s only real clunker is “Into the Ether,” one of those “what were they thinking” numbers, on which the vocal sounds like a poor impersonation of Louis Armstrong.

Not quite top-drawer Who, “Endless Wire” is nevertheless a good album from a band that is at least able to sit up and take nourishment once again. If you don’t like it, just kick back and wait another 24 years for the next one.

(Editor’s note: The limited-edition CD includes a bonus DVD with five live Who tracks filmed on tour last summer and two bonus audio tracks.)

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