Monday, 10 March 2008

Top 100 Albums - #42: Endless Wire (2006)

At number 42 is Endless Wire, The Who's first album in 24 years and their fourth entry on the chart.The death of John Entwistle in June 2002 on the eve of a US tour left the band depleted of half its members. The tour continued after a short delay with Pino Palladino filling in on bass. The death of Entwistle had the side effect of bringing Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend closer together, as proven by Daltrey's defence of Townshend during the latter's child pornography allegation. In the next few years The Who continued to tour, playing at the Isle of Wight Festival, and recording two new songs for the compilation Then And Now: 1964-2004 (2004, #63). In the face of ecstatic reviews both from critics and pollsters, Pete Townshend announced a new album to be released in Spring 2005, but the release was held back due to the slow pace of recording and drummer Zak Starkey's commitments with Oasis.

Get ready, then, for the longest comeback in the world. This hotly-anticipated album begins with 'Fragments', whose intro takes its inspiration, if not its exact chord progression, from 'Baba O'Riley', the opener to Who's Next (1971). But before the parody even begins to become unbearable, Townshend and Daltrey kick in. Daltrey's voice may be deeper, huskier and a little strained, but the power and presence is still there, even amongst the twinkling piano which backs the song. This doesn't quite feel like a classic Who song, partly because it is co-written with enigmatic composer Lawrence Ball. But it's a bright opener which at the very least does not immediately deter you from listening to the rest of the record.

Like a lot of comeback albums, the pace of songs are slower and the tone more mellow. This is reflected aptly in 'A Man In A Purple Dress', an acoustic, folky number that sounds like a more mature version of 'Blue, Red And Gray' from The Who By Numbers (1975). But for all the borrowing from past albums (and incarnations), this is a great song in its own right. It is a passionate yet unpreachy critique of religious hypocrisy - Townshend wrote it after watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). But look further in the lyrics and you see hints of Townshend's child pornography turmoil. Daltrey vocalises Townshend's anger at his treatment, spitting out lines like How dare you be the one to assess/ Me in this God-foresaken mess? with a mixture of venom and intelligence.

'Mike Post Theme' is the first song on here to really get your pulse racing. Daltrey, as ever, pushes his vocal range right from the first second, and the result is startling. Considering that this is a song about a TV theme tune writer, and considering it's backed by a mandolin for the most part, it still manages to sound like an arena anthem. The soft verses crescendo into the belter-of-a-chorus, which is actually a good laugh, and everything feels tight yet unpredictable, just as The Who were at their peak. On the down side, it's a bit too long and the drums rely too heavily on the cymbals, especially on the middle eight. On the up side, this song stands as proof that the aggressive, dynamic spirit of The Who has been renewed and updated, rather than just being lost to age.

Townshend growls 'In The Ether', literally. Whether for effect or simply because of age, he strums his way through this sounding like Daltrey's early voice, which aped 1950s American Blues singers. An Englishness remains, however, drawn out and extracted by the subtle piano which pervades behind the acoustic. Again, this is not the most catchy song in the world, and again, it's closer to the quiet introspection of The Who By Numbers than the rip-roaring ecstasy of its three predecessors. But there is a lot to like here, even if Townshend's voice isn't one of them.

'Black Widow's Eyes' is a bold move from Townshend, being a song about Stockholm Syndrome and the Beslan Massacre. Coming across as a twisted and sinister love song, it slowly unfolds into quite a merry and pleasing number. This is the only song on the album which features Zak Starkey - Ringo Starr's son - on drums. And it shows. There is a reason why he is described as 'neo-Moon-ish'¹; he comes as close as damnit to the real thing, while producing the polished sound required by the contemporary consumer. His tom-tom fill after the second chorus is simply inspired; the old man would have been proud of it.

With 'Two Thousand Years', we get more mandolin, more Christian imagery and more bravado from Daltrey. This is another song that came out of The Passion of the Christ, but while 'A Man In A Purple Dress' was barbed and vitriolic, this is a song of patience and clarity. The lyrics deal with the role of Judas Iscariot in the 'betrayal' of Jesus; lines like Then I find I can't be perfect/ Not even a perfect snake really leap out of the mix and capture a fragment of his feeling. This is a very dynamic song, in which Townshend's string work is counterpointed beautifully by Daltrey's full-blown bluster.

The first real slip-up on Endless Wire comes with the next track. 'God Speaks Of Marty Robbins' is an example of Townshend at best being facetious and at worst showing that he really does have no sense of humour. This song, sung by Townshend, is about God waking up after the Big Bang and deciding that he should get a move on so he can hear the music of Marty Robbins, his favourite singer. This comes from a Townshend solo demo from 1984, and like a lot of Townshend's solo stuff - like White City (1985), for instance - it's overambitious and way too serious.

Forget about that, though, because we now come to 'It's Not Enough'. This is unreservedly the best song on the entire album. It may begin with an acoustic, but then the amazing electric guitar takes over and Daltrey takes off. He may have been 62 when this was recorded, but he still crests the high notes (and very high notes) with confidence and passion, bringing out all that Townshend intended. Never mind that this song is co-written by Rachel Fuller, Townshend's partner, and never mind that it takes its inspiration from, of all places, Brigitte Bardot. This is a full-on, proper Who song, packed full of rock'n'roll's rebellious spirit. It's an instant classic, outstanding from start to finish, and one of the most overlooked and underplayed tracks of the year.

The main album ends with 'You Stand By Me', Townshend's eulogy to both Fuller and Daltrey. To Who fans, especially those who have followed their relationship through the course of their career, the latter meaning will obviously take prominence. Townshend could never have written this song at the height of The Who's fame in the early-1970s, the conflict in the band was too great. It might come across as sentimental in its lyrics, but musically it feels peaceful and refined.

Now we come to the mini-opera, Wire And Glass. Townshend's overambition and referencing to his past both come to the surface here, as this ten-song suite brings 'A Quick One (While He's Away)' to mind. That was a slight, incredibly awkward and rather twee collection of demos slung together to please Kit Lambert; this begins a lot more promisingly. 'Sound Round' begins with some smashing drums, which serve as the perfect foil for Daltrey just as Keith Moon did in his prime. The song begins the story of Ray High - who cropped up on Townshend's solo records, like Psychoderelict (1993) - who sees a vision in the sky of a future society strangled by communications and wires.

'Sound Round' is very short, at 1:21, and leaves you wanting more. But then to come to 'Pick Up The Peace' and are met with disappointment. Ray High is now an aged rock star, in an isolation room, hallucinating about a band formed out of three kids, a reminiscing of his own beginnings interlaced with modern fantasy. All of that was discerned from reading Townshend's own explanations, not from listening to the indiscernable lyrics. Not good.

The next song, however, begins to show you what you should really be concentrating on. 'Unholy Trinity' begins with the lines Three kids from the nieghbourhood/ Three different lives/ Three different ways to be/ Three identical smiles. At once it dawns on you that, for all the intricacies and ambition of Townshend's suite, this is actually about the band itself. And why not? Why not retrace through and admire the history of the band in such a poetic way?

From hereon in, then we have some idea of the concept in our minds, and the plot serves only to get in the way. Not only does 'Trilby's Piano' come across as irritating, but it throws you off the scent of the deeper, clearer meaning of the songs. It is a total red herring, which is appalling. The title track makes up for this though, being as it is a work of beauty. It may be Townshend singing it (again), but this time he does a seriously good job; the way in which he croons words like paper and caper gives them an enchanting quality. Although the lyrics are conceptual you don't get perturbed because melodically this is absolutely superb, with the bright, brilliant acoustic and sophisticated drums. Definitely recommended.

Once again, though, brilliance is followed by brutal failure. 'Fragments Of Fragments' has nothing really going for it; even the name suggests a lack of inspiration or ingenuity. Just like Mike Oldfield continuing messing with Tubular Bells (1973), here Townshend produces a squashed, shortened and self-parodying version of the opening track. The cymbals are choked, the vocals warbled and it all feels old and fake. 'We Got A Hit' helps to make up for this; even if it only a measy 1:18 long, it's full of punch. Daltrey's vocals are as bright and as swaggering as they were on Quadrophenia (1973). This was a great choice for the first single from the album, even if it underperformed in the charts (predictably, since this is good and nothing in the charts is). Again, however, a duff track comes along in 'They Made My Dream Come True' and ruins the mood. It's a good thing that this is so short, because it feels and sounds way too sentimental. Pete Townshend whines through the lines like Phil Collins, only with three noses.

Once again, though, just when you're about to write them off, the band pull a complete corker out of the bag. 'Mirror Door', a song about musical heaven as one great party, is a tribute to the band's influences and favourite bands, as the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran are all acknowledged in the opening verse. Once again Daltrey pushes his vocal range without sounding either old-aged or old-fashioned. Backed by shimmering organ, great drums (especially at the start), and a dazzling Townshend beating the living daylights out of a Fender Stratocaster, it's a proper Who song, a riot to listen to with a sensitive centre.

But if it's outwardly sensitive that you want, then turn to 'Tea & Theatre', the closer to Wire & Glass and the song which has replaced 'Won't Get Fooled Again' as the closer to The Who's live set. And you can see why. This is as close as Pete has ever come, and perhaps ever will, to writing a love song - certainly it's the most straight ahead he's ever been. The lyrics, with a little leeway, are a great eulogy to the band in its twilight:

We made it work
But one of us failed
That makes it so sad
A great dream derailed
One of us gone
One of us mad
One of us, me
All of us sad

As the song closes, you get a warm sensation, happy at the state the band is in and hopeful for more. And you get more. The final two tracks are extended versions of 'We Got A Hit' (used as the radio edit) and 'Endless Wire'. But unlike the alternative version of songs on Who Are You (1978, #47), these are not offcuts left on the studio floor, rescued to sate and satisfy the sound nerds. Both benefit from their extra verses, which flesh them out and make them more rounded as singles. However, these extensions take none of the charm from the originals, and you keep coming back to them.

Special editions of the album also include a second disk, dubbed Live At Lyon. There is little so say about this, save to say that it serves as evidence of the renewed and lasting live power of the band. 'The Seeker', a single released in March 1970, has a great opening from Townshend and retains its energy throughout. 'Who Are You' is a mild improvement on the Live 8 performance of July 2005, while 'Mike Post Theme' comes across as proof enough that the new material can translate to the live stage. The next three tracks all suffer though - 'Relay' sees Daltrey straining in the higher registers, 'Greyhound Girl' is nonsensically twee, and 'Naked Eye' remains as inadequate as the day it was recorded. The final track, 'Won't Get Fooled Again' is, as ever, pure bliss - Daltrey's performance is still spectacular - and yes, he can still do the famous scream. The track interpolates into a reduced version of 'Old Red Wine', the 2004 eulogy to John Entwistle.

Comeback albums are always difficult to predict. Some, like U2's Achtung Baby (1991) are hailed by the critics and represent a new era for the band; others, like Peter Gabriel's Up (2002), delight the fans but leave the critics divided and confused; and other still, like Billy Idol's Devil's Playground (2005), are just downright atrocious. Endless Wire is difficult since, although the critics were divided upon its release, it has the sense about it of ushering in a new era for the band. Although many of the tracks, like 'Fragments', lift from the band's past glories, this is not just a celebration of the old music like the tours of the reunions of the 1980s and 1990s. There is so much to like here, with a series of brilliant tunes and some hearty subject matter, tarnished only, in the case of Wire & Glass, by Townshend's continuing overambition (and, some might say, inability to explain what he means when it matters). This is a brilliant Who album by any standards, and if recent rumours are anything to go by, this is not the last Who album we shall ever see.²

3.89 out of 5

¹ David Fricke, 'Endless Wire', Accessed on March 18 2008.
² Jonathan Cohen, 'The Who Mulls Next Album, Revisits Classics', Accessed on March 21 2008.


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thomaswales said...

Don't worry, I'm not going to say 'this post is likeable'.

I've just listened through the entire album, as I hadn't actually got round to it yet. Its a very poor album. The problem is once again Townshend putting album before songwriting.

The way I judge albums is on two levels. 1) whether there are any songs I would keep playing if my Itunes was on random and 2) Lyrics don't matter at all, just the tune, harmonies, chord changes, rhythm etc.

Using my strict judgement methods the only song that appeals is the extended version of Endless Wire. The rest of the album includes some good ideas, but many seem no more than demo songs that need developing, cutting and could do with the old Lennon/McCartney trick of throwing in an interesting chorus/break by a different songwriter do each to liven it up (I'm not saying they should sound like Beatles tracks, just that such songwriting would make the songs less predictable). If you want an example take something short like 'You Stand by me', which has the good basis for a song but doesn't really go anywhere musically - a typical demo which could have been developed.

Those that are 'developed' further could do well with being a maximum of 4min long, because otherwise the album drags to listen through completely.

Another problem is I don't know if the album sounds too like a Who album. Pete's use of Method Music shows good experimentation, but Fragments just gets the standard Who treatment of Fragments ruins the point of this (i.e. a break into the song with strong guitar guitar, typical Who harmonies on the vocal).

All in all the album sounds very twee, but in a bad way almost as if thats by accident. Compare it with Memory almost full by McCartney, which is unashamably twee, it sounds in the vocal that Daltrey is somewhat ashamed of the twee nature.

I'd give it 2/5. A good album showcasing demos, but only one standout track and I'm afraid it really does sound the Who are showing their age and Townshend seems torn between writing acoustic guitar numbers and experimenting with technology (yet filling in songs like Fragments) with well-known Who tricks.

Townshend needs to write a 10 song album with no overall plot, a limit of 4 min per song and the aim to take the entire album on tour. I'm sure that the Who wouldn't dare take a lot of the stuff on this album on tour as it wouldn't get the audience in the right mood.