Here’s the good news: Even down to two original members, little’s changed for the Who on this, their first all-new album in 24 years. Roger Daltrey bellows with the best of them. Pete Townshend’s guitar cuts with heat and precision. Well-drilled mercenaries ably summon the ghosts of John Entwistle’s propulsive bass and Keith Moon’s frenzied drums. Here’s the bad news: Little’s changed. To this fan’s chagrin, Townshend’s still fixated on extended narrative—a fixation that came closest to achieving fruition more than three decades ago and has offered diminishing returns ever since. “Psychoderelict,” anyone?
Townshend’s faith in rock ‘n’ roll as an appropriate vehicle for his biggest ideas is admirable, but Endless Wire does little to justify his devotion. Half the album is given over to a dystopian mini-opera, but without explanation the story line is basically incomprehensible. So was Tommy, but that album was combustible in all the places this one is overly mannered. The rest of Wire marries weighty topics (the ontology of art, Jesus, etc.) to music that, at best, reaches the modest heights of “Who Are You” or “It’s Hard.” Long one of rock’s most introspective figures, Townshend might do well to note that Endless Wire‘s best songs, especially the solo-guitar- and-voice lullaby “You Stand By Me,” are also its simplest.