Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Who - Who's Next (1971)

Awesome!
That word is used way too much these days, but it accurately describes the Who's 1971 studio album.  Who's Next is a fragment of a much more ambitious project that Who guitarist Pete Townshend envisioned as a successor to their rock opera Tommy. Ironically, the majesty and power of Who's Next are greater than the Who could have anticipated; as far as I am concerned, this is the greatest rock album of all time not recorded by the Beatles.
Who's Next is the by-product of Lifehouse, a proposed rock opera about a polluted world in which music is banned and people survive in hermetically sealed environments controlled by the government. Most of the songs that made it onto Who's Next follow the themes of a denatured, destabilized civilization that bring to life all of the complexities of modernity - poverty, revolution, self-fulfillment - via music that is powerful, introspective, and innovative.
Who's Next explodes out of the gate with"Baba O'Riley," with its hypnotic synthesizer backdrop and and a driving performance from the band propelling the tale of a farmer and his family on a life-and-death exodus to the city.  The most notable quality is frontman Roger Daltrey's voice, now a full-throated roar that duels with Townshend's thunderous guitar; throughout the record, Daltrey's voice is as clear as it is ferocious, demonstrating a sense of control and power previously associated exclusively with another Roger - Family's Roger Chapman.  As on most of the album's songs, through, drummer Keith Moon leads the way with his major assaults.  Moon's beat provides the heavy rock underpinnings of the entire record, even on beautifully intense power ballads as the apocalyptic "Bargain" (again, with a commanding vocal from Daltrey) and the forlorn "Song Is Over," in which Townshend displays a tender humanity beneath the brutal surface of the music.  He even makes an acoustic guitar sound menacing on the former song, and keyboard session man Nicky Hopkins brings out the depth of the latter song.
Townshend's biggest innovation on Who's Next, though , is his use of electronic sounds with subtlety.  On "Going Mobile," a cheeky, free-wheeling salute to highway travel, Townshend backs his lackadaisical lead vocal with a wobbly guitar sound channeled through a synthesizer as Moon happily follows along with his heavy drumming pattern and cymbal clashes.  The wasted landscape suggested by the theme of human disregard for the planet makes it seem almost ironic. Even more tongue-in-cheek is bassist John Entwistle's contribution to Who's Next, "My Wife."  A song not intended for Lifehouse, "My Wife" tells a humorous tale of a man escaping his wife's rage based on suspicions of infidelity when he in fact spent a night in a drunk tank.  Backed by his own fluid bass playing (a quality that permeates throughout the album) and Townshend's churning guitar, Entwistle sings in a deadpan manner that highlights the absurdity of his song, especially when placed among Townshend's much more substantial ruminations.  It shows, as much as Moon's drumming, how vital each member of the band was to its chemistry.
The Who save their best for last here with two astonishing songs.  There's the raw, brutal honesty of "Behind Blue Eyes," a tale of self-loathing that switches from a brittle acoustic arrangement to a heavy electric one and back with agility.  But "Won't Get Fooled Again," a dismissal of revolutionary war as a solution to anything, is the masterpiece within a masterpiece, its pointed vocals, heavy guitars and piercing, thunderous bass and drums as punishing as an urban war zone and its pulsating synthesizer illustrating the mass confusion of a movement.  The transcendent scream from Daltrey and a final power chord from Townshend bring everything crashing down - "Meet the new boss, same the old boss."  The Who were an entirely different band entering the seventies, going from a Mod band full of youthful curiosity to a jaded pre-punk ensemble expressing the disillusionment of the generation Townshend was continuing to talk about.
The magic bus ride was over.
(This is my last Sunday record review for awhile; I will start writing record reviews again some time in the new year.) 

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