“WHO” sees the pair backed by some of their frequent collaborators since the deaths of drummer Keith Moon in 1979 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002, such as drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Pino Palladino. Others include drummers Joey Waronker and Carla Azar, bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboard player Benmont Tench.
Still, all the splendid backing notwithstanding — and not forgetting co-producer and multi-instrumentalist D. Sardy, either — it’s the high standards of The Who’s last remaining trademarks, Townshend’s songwriting and guitar playing and Daltrey’s superlative singing, that make the album such a joy.
Townshend has written a strong batch of songs full of yearning and confronting the passage of time, many carrying shades and echoes of his past work; he rips power chords and performs slinky riffs; and his vocals, especially in support of Daltrey’s leads, are still a highlight.
Daltrey, for his part, with health concerns behind him, sings with power, sensitivity, range and conviction, just as he has done for decades. While it doesn’t have the same of air of finality as Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker,” released just weeks before his death in 2016, based on their recording habits of the past decades, “WHO” may well be their last studio album.
The catchy, propulsive opener “All This Music Must Fade” seems like a message about Townshend and Daltrey's difficult relationship, even though that seems to have mellowed: “I don’t care/I know you’re gonna hate this song. And that’s it/We never really got along.” It may also be a missive to their fans and closes with what will become Townshend’s most famous last words since his “I saw ya!” at the end of “Happy Jack.”
“Ball and Chain,” “Street Song” and “Beads on One String” are topical but many other of the 11 tracks (plus three on the deluxe edition) are simultaneously defiant, vulnerable and contemplative, with aging repeatedly rearing its head.
On the rousing “Rocking in Rage,” like a coda to “Quadrophenia,” the talk is still about their generation: “I thought I’d be calmer/Not rocking in rage,” even if “I’m too old to fight.” It’s a shiver-inducing Daltrey performance.
Townshend sings lead on “I’ll Be Back,” a nostalgic tune with strings and harmonica, that seems lifted from his “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes” 1982 solo album. On “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise,” Daltrey seems to have changed some of the lyric sheet’s “I” pronouns into “he,” “we” and “us,” as if making space for himself in the rocking mini-biography of a song — “He was drunk/I was blind/Though we tried to be kind” — and belting out a “We got wise” at the end.
Thankfully, it’s much too late for Daltrey and Townshend to die before they get old, so with “WHO” they show that even in rock ‘n’ roll, it’s possible to age both with grace and vigor and without abandoning purpose. Or lose the talent to make stirring, highly gratifying music.
In a December 6, 2019 review of the album The WHO, The Associated Press erroneously reported that Pete Townshend said “I saw ya!” at the end of “Magic Bus.” The song was actually “Happy Jack.” The story has been corrected.