Just when you thought it was safe to think that the Rolling Stones were incomparable, here come The Who. The Who's new album, "Who Are You," is a reaffirmation of their energy and angry grace, and caps one of rock's most productive summers in recent memory.
Both the Stones and The Who were products of the Beatle-led "British invasion" of the early '60s (though the Stones caught on a bit faster commercially). Both had been regarded as passe as late as last year. And both have come back strong.
"Who Are You" is the best work The Who have done since "Who's Next." Never has so big a sound owed so much to so few. The Who haven't changed all that much since they were smashing their instruments as part of their stage act. They're still basically a power trio with Roger Daltrey's voice a fourth bazooka in the artillery.
There are string arrangements by co-producer Ted Astley (the other co-producer is veteran Glyn Johns), one piano and one synthesizer part by Rod Argent, and backing vocals from Andy Fairweather-Low, but these are window dressing. This is a Who album: powerful and intellectually stimulating.
Leader Pete Townshend has never been so compactly eloquent. Even slower, more orchestrated tunes like "Music Must Change" bristle with the vengeance that made early hits like "I Can See For Miles" so menacing.
Townshend built his original reputation on a windmill guitar-playing style and an ability to demolish thousands of dollars worth of equipment in one encore. Over the years, though, he has developed into one of the most literate songwriters in rock. Only the Kinks' Ray Davies approaches Townhend's ability to capture the essence of youth's struggles (emotional and physical) without losing sight of his band's musical framework.
The Who are not Bob Dyland or Paul Simon. The Who piledrive their message home over a thunderous barrage of pure rock progressions, but their messages are as moving as the quieter writers.
Since the Who have grown with us, they can look a life from a mature perspective (all the group members are in their thirties). We get insights into frustration (John Entwistle's "Trick of the Light") and we learn that people's work defines their existence even in the rock'n roll biz (Townshend's "Guitar and Pen"). When Daltrey blasts into the chorus of "Who Are You," it isn't a question but a demand. The strength and accusing tone of the vocal are far more aggressive than any antics pulled by the punk rockers.
The synthesizers on "Who Are You" are simply programmed but exceptionally effective. Only the strings on "Love is Coming Down" slow the blistering pace. Even there the song is so purely delivered the arrangement gets by.
The title cut sums up the record's intensity. It begins with the handclaps and synthesizer, then Keith Moon's drums sneak into the foreground; thereafter it's Katie-bar-the-door. By the time Daltry hits the final verse, the band is in a controlled frenzy and the naked strength of the music is overwhelming.
The Who have never taken the easy way out and sometimes that's cost them. "Quadrophenia" was overweight and "The Who By Numbers" suffered from cynial lyrics pegged to improper supporting music. "Who Are You" puts it all together. It's like having someone beat you into seeing the truth. "Who Are You" solidifies The Who's position as power rock's premier spokesmen. They are what a lot of us are all about.