REVIEW FROM 2006 TOP TEN
After Keith Moon died in 1978, The Who regrouped for two more studio albums, 1981's Face Dances and 1982's It's Hard. On both, The Who played it safe - neither album takes many chances. Now, 24 years later, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have reunited for a new Who studio album, and it's easily the most diverse in the band's history. It's also the closest Who album to a Pete Townshend solo album. Pete wrote all of the songs, played the lion's share of the instruments, and produced.
Endless Wire is basically two half-albums. The first half (from "Fragments" through "You Stand By Me") is a collection of unrelated songs, with a ton of diversity. The album opens in classic Who form, bubbling synthesiser and slashing power chords, but "Fragments" quickly changes into something more subtle and less bombastic. Four songs in the first half ("A Man In A Purple Dress", "Two Thousand Years" "God Speaks Of Marty Robbins" and "You Stand By Me") are folky, acoustic guitar numbers that seem more like Townshend solo numbers, or even demos. Three of the others are more standard Who fare, the occasionally clunky "Mike Post Theme" and the excellent "Black Widow's Eyes" and "It's Not Enough".
The second half is a mini-opera titled "Wire & Glass". Although based on Townshend's novella The Boy Who Heard Music, "Wire & Glass" doesn't tell the story on it's own - you really need to read the novella to get it. However, the mini-opera still stands up quite well anyway. Made up of small pieces (each of the first eight parts are under 2:30 in length, and most are under 2:00), "Wire & Glass" is the better half in general. Only the operatic "Trilby's Piano" doesn't really work. The opener "Sound Round", the title track, and "We Got A Hit" are the highlights, and "Mirror Door" is close, coupling average verses with a killer chorus. The two bonus tracks, extended versions of "Endless Wire" and "We Got A Hit" are wonderful as well.
Overall, I was disappointed at first, but Endless Wire continues to grow on me. I certainly wouldn't put in the same league as Who's Next or Quadrophenia, but it's far better than It's Hard and I like that Townshend is aiming high and taking chances rather than just playing it safe.
(Pete Townshend/Lawrence Ball)
A classic Who opening, coupling bubbling synthesizer with slashing Townshend power chords, "Fragments" sounds like it's going to be a massive rocker. Instead, the song takes a left turn into a more delicate harmony piece. "Fragments" is part of the music for The Boy Who Heard Music; however, a short reprise is used within "Wire & Glass" at the end of the album. A beautiful opener.
- "A Man In A Purple Dress"
Simply Townshend on acoustic guitar and Daltrey singing, "A Man In A Purple Dress" is a stinging, Dylanesque attack on organized religion and the men who use positions of power to judge others. In addition, you can read a little of Townshend's outrage over his treatment in the media over the allegations that nearly wrecked his career. Angry and potent.
- "Mike Post Theme"
A clunky opening mars an otherwise catchy song about the healing familiarity of television. Mike Post has written numerous theme songs for television shows over the years, including the themes to "Law & Order", "NYPD Blue" and "The Rockford Files".
- "In The Ether"
A pretty melody with a lyric drawn from The Boy Who Heard Music, "In The Ether" is none-the-less spoiled by Pete Townshend's odd lead vocal, which sounds essentially like Pete trying to do an impression of Tom Waits, and not really pulling it off. The song would've been better if they'd just got Tom to do a guest vocal.
- "Black Widow's Eyes"
The first classic track on the album, "Black Widow's Eyes" is a portrait of Stockholm Syndrome (that makes hostages sympathize with their captors), specifically a hostage at the Beslan Massacre. A chilling lyric with a terrific song behind it, plus Zak Starkey's sole appearance on the album.
- "Two Thousand Years"
A folky declaration of faith, powered by acoustic guitar and layored harmony. Excellent.
- "God Speaks Of Marty Robbins"
Originally released as an instrumental on Scoop 3, the finished version isn't musically all that different from the demo. Simply Townshend on guitar and vocals, "God Speaks Of Marty Robbins" is a pretty song that would've likely been a better fit on a Townshend solo album.
- "It's Not Enough"
(Pete Townshend/Rachel Fuller)
Co-written with his girlfriend, Rachel Fuller, "It's Not Enough" is a classic Who single, complete with fierce guitar work and Daltrey in full voice. For me, this is the best song on the album.
- "You Stand By Me"
A simple Townshend acoustic guitar and vocal song, with a lyric of thanks.
- "Sound Round"
"Wire & Glass" starts here, with a blazing, almost out-of-control rocker that gets the mini-opera off to a raging start.
- "Pick Up The Peace"
Another one in the classic Who mold, but Daltrey's vocal just doesn't quite click.
- "Unholy Trinity"
The best of the experiments on the album, "Unholy Trinity" couples a lyric about the three protagonists of the story (a Jew, a Muslim, and a lapsed Catholic) with a delicate piano, guitar and banjo melody. Totally unlike The Who, but a terrific song.
- "Trilby's Piano"
Representing a scene in the story where the heroes perform a play for their parents, this dramatic, orchestrated showtune-style interlude makes perfect sense in the context of the story, but brings the momentum of the mini-opera to a screeching halt.
- "Endless Wire"
A stunner. Townshend uses a hint of the "new voice" he plays with on "In The Ether", but to much better effect. Less than two minutes long, but it feels like an epic.
- "Fragments Of Fragments"
(Pete Townshend/Lawrence Ball)
A reprise of the album opener.
- "We Got A Hit"
Aptly titled, "We Got A Hit" is catchy rock that seems tailor-made for the airwaves. The only problem: it's only 1:18 long!
- "They Made My Dream Come True"
A slow, dramatic interlude that doesn't quite work.
- "Mirror Door"
The first full-length part of the mini-opera, "Mirror Door" combines a killer hook and superb chorus with an occasionally clunky lyric paying tribute to everyone from Frank Sinatra to Led Zeppelin to Beethoven to Howlin' Wolf to The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. This was the lead single from the album, although the single has a different vocal take. This version is a vast improvement.
- "Tea & Theatre"
The finale of "Wire & Glass", a simple song with acoustic guitar and drum machine. Pretty, but slight.
- "We Got A Hit" [extended version]
The extended version really improves this one. There's more verses and a touch of "They Made My Dream Come True" is pulled in for good measure. Terrific.
- "Endless Wire" [extended version]
Like the extended version of "We Got A Hit", the longer running time is a vast improvement for "Endless Wire". Already a great song, the added verses and bridge just enhance the song.
Endless Wire is a bit of a mixed bag. It seems that for each new classic like "Black Widow's Eyes", "It's Not Enough", or the title track, there's a clunker like "In The Ether" or "Trilby's Piano" or something slight like "You Stand By Me" or "God Speaks Of Marty Robbins".