Where to begin? The beginning: Do we consider the trilling synthesizer of “Fragments” a shameless rehash of “Baba O’Riley,” or slyly self-referential? Is either the better choice? I am asking you, the reader, because it is really a choice that is up to you, and one that will influence your perception of Endless Wire. And I have to ask myself, because this album brings with it a certain wariness for any reviewer. It is their first studio album since It’s Hardover twenty years ago, and also their first since Entwistle joined the choir invisible. It is a situation that creates undeniable conflict. The cheeky young music critic is prone to dismiss new releases by old artists (unless that artist is named Tom Waits, or maybe Bob Dylan on his better days), and yet – after such a long gestation period – I terribly want this to be a good album.
I can say at least one thing with ultimate certainty: Townsend is still one hell of a lyricist. He can tell a story and turn a phrase with biting humor or grand eloquence (as the situation requires) just as well as ever. “Like broken glass / we damage even in defeat,” he tells us through the avatar of Daltrey in “Fragments.” This could be taken as a comment on the band’s age, but judging from past experience with Townsend’s writing, it probably has a more universal implication. This is followed by the fairly good religious indictment of “A Man in a Purple Dress,” and the darkly humorous “Mike Post Theme” (“Everything is all right / We’ve prayed to day / If there really is a God / We’ll get laid today”). But this good run is broken up by the fairly lukewarm “In the Ether,” which features one of the most absurd vocals I’ve ever heard from the Who.
The rest of what I’ll call side one of the album shifts back and forth like this, between the good and the mediocre – with fairly consistently stunning lyrics throughout, though I’m a bit befuddled by the shout out to Godard in “It’s Not Enough.” With “Sound Round,” the album becomes the mini-opera proper Wire and Glass. Appropriately, the rolling snares and terse lines emitted by Daltrey’s still powerful voice feel like a fresh start, like something new has begun. The story of “Endless Wire” doesn’t really become clear until the title track lets us in on the “ether man’s” plan to entertain immortals with music – which of course would require endless wire.
“Fragments of Fragments” picks up the pieces (sorry) of the album’s opening track and makes something altogether more interesting out of it. In it’s new incarnation, the warbling synthesizer no longer seems like a reprise (ironically, considering the song actually is a reprise), but the perfect aural representation of fragmented people. Finally the Who play to the cheering masses of immortals on “Mirror Door” (at least that is what the sound of an audience implies) and closes with the perfectly understated “Tea and Theatre.” On it’s own, the mini-opera Endless Wire is an unexpectedly good release coming from a band so far along in their career. To which I say “thank you, thank you, thank you Townsend for not copping out.”