Pretentious, portentous, brimming over with other adjectives that begin with ‘P’ – pulsing, personal, piss-taking and, ultimately, all about Pete – the first new Who album for 24 years is also characterised by its staggering emotional quotient, deep sense of doubt and lacerating intelligence.
Most of all, this is for the fans out there who have waited for it for so long that they’re ready for anything. And it really doesn’t matter what the rest of us think. Taking its oscillating cue from Baba O’Reilly – as opening track Fragments does – seems like a weird way to begin, but after a few listens it’s strangely apt. For – modern production values aside – Out On The Endless Wire sounds like it could have been written in 1974, around the time Townshend was looking – and failing – to write a suitably significant follow-up to Quadrophenia: a 21-track, 59-minute confection of poisonous acoustic ballads and face-punching rock topped off – it almost goes without saying – with a 10- song rock-opera.
Along the way we encounter stories of mid-life crisis, pent-up rage and various indirect ways of bidding farewell to the ghosts of Keith Moon and John Entwistle (replaced here by bassist Pino Palladino, drummers Zak Starkey and Peter Huntingdon). Not exactly easy- listening then, but when was it ever, as far as Townshend, the man who invented the concept album, was concerned?
…Endless Wire seems to reflect on everything he and long-suffering vocalist Roger Daltrey have been through this past quarter-century, from the crashing guitars and defiant declarations of Mike Post Theme (the theme is love) to the Dylan-esque Man In A Purple Dress (about the media scrum after Townshend’s 2003 police caution for accessing child porn), via the swaggeringly louche It’s Not Enough (nothing ever is). There are songs of hope (You Stand By Me), songs of resigned desperation (Unholy Trinity) and songs you’re not sure about – In The Ether.
Then there’s the mini-opera, titled Wire & Glass, based on Townshend’s novella The Boy Who Heard Music. Which is how I know it deals with a ‘society strangled by communications’. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a clue. But after the complexity of the preceding material a bit more head- scratching doesn’t hurt, culminating in the, frankly, quite mad Mirror Door, where Pete name-checks his own musical heroes, from ‘Johnny Cash and Johnnie Ray’ to ‘Henry, Johann and the Doo-Dah Band’, before rounding the whole thing off with Tea & Theatre, a typically English-sounding ending, that gets better every listen.