Though most rock musicians are loath to admit it, the road doesn't go on forever, not even for the most brash and flamboyant of British bands, the Who. Wednesday night the Who will begin its farewell tour at the Capital Centre. It remains to be seen whether these concerts will really mark the end of the road for the Who, or merely constitute the band's "first farewell tour," as Roger Daltrey reportedly described them in jest.
One thing, however, is clear: The Who couldn't have asked for more consistent, volatile and redeeming songs for their last hurrah than those found on its new album, "It's Hard" (Warner Bros. 23731-1). "Face Dances," the Who's last record, suggested the band might go out with more of a whimper than a bang. After the death of drummer Keith Moon, and with the divisive pressures of solo careers bearing down on Peter Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle, the Who seemed headed for a slow fade, a rather ignominious end for a band whose defiant songs -- "My Generation" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," among others -- became anthems for millions, and which was at one time celebrated for leaving the stage in shambles, littered with shattered guitars and amplifiers.
It wasn't middle age that caught up with the Who on "Face Dances" so much as complacency. Neither Townshend nor Daltrey nor Entwistle exerted much control; the result was a halfhearted reconciliation of different interests. Like other recent Who albums, the result was a rather sorry compromise.
"It's Hard" is also something of a compromise -- but a happy one. After immersing himself in two solo albums -- "Empty Glass" and "All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes" -- and overcoming some trying personal problems, Townshend again has come to grips with writing for the Who. Over the years, his lyrics have grown increasingly moralistic, sometimes to a fault, but on this album they don't blunt the impact of the music. The songs are sharply focused and, following the themes that ran through "Empty Glass" (hope) and "Chinese Eyes" (survival), they have a powerful cumulative effect.
Though the album opens with Townshend's "Athena," a sure-fire hit single with a classic Who flavor, it's the next song, Entwistle's "It's Your Turn," with its things-aren't-always-what-they-seem attitude, that sets the mood for the album. Both Entwistle and Townshend are concerned with the dangers of self-deception. On "It's Your Turn," Entwistle first approaches the subject on a personal level: Rock isn't all that it's cracked up to be; rock stars are only pretenders in paradise.
Townshend, on the other hand, expands the theme, taking a more activist stance. On "Cooks County" and the insinuating funk number "Eminence Front," the message is repeated over and over: It's all too easy to close your eyes to human suffering, hunger and loneliness. The message is also clear on "I've Known No War," in which nuclear war isn't a war but a "fireball in the sky . . . there's no point in pretending that knowing will help us abort." These songs, and others like "A Man Is a Man," which debunks male stereotypes, find Townshend expressing adult concerns without diluting the Who's music. Townshend is aware that this stance leaves him open to criticism from all sides, but he takes the risk and it pays off handsomely.
In what could be viewed as the album's postscript, "Cry If You Want" suggests younger writers have an easier time expressing themselves: Once it was just innocence Brash ideas and insolence But you will never get away With the things you say today But you can try if you want
Perhaps the best thing about this album is that Townshend is still trying.
On a purely musical level, "It's Hard" is good enough to rank among the Who's best work. Seldom has Roger Daltrey been more comfortable and convincing handling Townshend's lyrics. Throughout the album, he sings with unmistakable conviction, avoiding the familiar operetta poses that have made so much of his work sound the same.
Likewise, drummer Kenney Jones' control and precision is welcome. Keith Moon added immeasurably to the Who's original power and appeal, but now that Townshend has toned down the clamor of his windmilling power chords and devised more intricate settings, it's clear Jones is equipped to handle the job.
This won't be the last Who album. Whatever the outcome of its U.S. tour, the group plans to continue recording. Still, one can't help but think this tour forced the band to present a united front on "It's Hard." Without that incentive, "It's Hard" may be a very hard album to follow.