Less than a minute into "Endless Wire," the Who's first studio album in 24 years, an emasculated rhythm section kicks in on the heels of a twinkling synthesizer intro straight out of "Baba O'Riley." Moments later Roger Daltrey's thinning bellow arrives -- heaving and straining toward classicism -- along with all sorts of questions. Not least, can (and should) this be done without bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002? Or for that matter Keith Moon, who OD'd decades ago and whose ornate, uncorked drumming combined with Entwistle's heavy filigree to form the soul of what most people think of when they think of the Who?
Nellie McKay's "Pretty Little Head" finally sees the light. Page E8
I subscribe to the unwritten law of reconfigured rock bands, which says if the original songwriter and singer are part of the lineup, it's a legitimate enterprise. By that standard the Who circa 2006, with material written by Pete Townshend and sung by Daltrey, still gets to call itself the Who. And yet despite nods to many of the band's historical touchstones -- the swaggering power chords and synth loops, the metaphysical struggles with God and morality and reality, the elaborate and often opaque storytelling -- "Endless Wire" feels a lot more like something that should have been called the Townshend-Daltrey Project.
Mainly that's because the best songs on "Endless Wire" are the ones that don't rely on the old familiar grandeur. And there are just enough of them in this 19-track collection -- which comes bundled with a "Live at Lyon" bonus DVD recorded last summer -- to make it feel relevant, if not exactly revolutionary. The effect is nothing short of startling when the self-conscious opening anthem, "Fragments," makes way for "A Man in a Purple Dress," a stripped, gripping broadside against organized religion, ostensibly inspired by "The Passion of the Christ" but also, it seems clear, Townshend's 2003 arrest (he was never charged) for downloading child porn. "How dare you be the one to assess/Me, in this God-forsaken mess/You, a man in a purple dress," sings Daltrey, whose vehement gargle sounds sage rather than sad on the acoustic tunes.
Townshend sings, too: most memorably a bizarre Tom Waits burlesque on lovely "In the Ether," and with simple clarity on "God Speaks of Marty Robbins," in which the Creator rationalizes his hard work in a tribute to the eclectic country music artist. The songwriter has hardly lost his sense of adventure.
The closing 10 songs on the album form a mini-opera called "Wire & Glass," inspired by Townshend's Web-based, semiautobiographical novella, "The Boy Who Heard Music." (Curious fans with a lot of patience and free time can check it out at petetownshend.co.uk/projects/tbwhm.) "Wire & Glass" is a sprawling but strangely undernourished affair that tells the intertwined stories of a young rock band and an aging mental patient in a series of one- to two-minute sketches. The motley assortment includes a handful of stadium-ready rockers that Daltrey delivers with wobbly conviction, a Sondheim-caliber show tune called "Trilby's Piano," the anthemic, mandolin-stoked title track, and a poignant coda called "Tea & Theatre."
"We did it all -- didn't we?/Jumped every wall -- instinctively . . . A thousand songs -- still smolder now/We played them as one -- we're older now." It's a gentle ballad arranged for two who still care enough to tell the story, hitting and missing along the way, ever and defiantly themselves.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.