I actually bought the album the week it was released last October but I thought I’d wait until I had it more figured out before I wrote about it. So here it is more than two months later and, while a few things have surfaced for me, there is still much here that I don’t get. One thing seems clear, though – there is something going on between Pete Townshend and God. Religion is taken on outright in “The Man in the Purple Dress” a non-too-subtle slam at organized religion. Townshend tries to put a little “I’m a hypocrite too” line in to soften the tirade but it comes across as forced an insincere. He’s clearly got a problem with anyone who purports to tell anyone else what to believe. But after that diatribe early in the album there are other much more subtle hints that spiritual things are happening on Planet Townshend. In “Two Thousand Years” he says that he’s been waiting that long. Waiting for what? “To ask if I have loved you / To know if I have served you / To find if I've obeyed you / To know if I've betrayed you.” So what’s THAT about? Can you think of anyone famous who lived 2000 years ago? Having this song on the same album as “The Man in the Purple Dress” just makes me confused.
But the God-talk doesn’t end there. In “God Speaks of Marty Robbins” we hear
And when the world began
I'd been asleep forever
I opened one eye
'Twas then it was I
Got the whim to wake
And when the weight of space
Rolled like it was an ocean
One became one
Father and son
Watched the sunrise break
Again, I’m not really clear on what we’re hearing but, as I said, Townshend is playing with the ideas of eternity and God. This is certainly not a new topic for him, having dedicated his first solo album, Who Came First to his spiritual leader Meher Baba, whose major book is titled God Speaks (so that might be a pretty big clue). So Townshend continues to think about God and also continues to think in grand pieces rather than just three-minute pop songs – the last half of this CD is a mini-opera called “Wire and Glass” about an old rock band who’s members have died leaving only two. At least that’s what I think. The story is incomplete without (apparently) reading things from Pete’s website which I haven’t had the patience to do yet – and I really don’t even know if that stuff is still there. Lyrically, this album mostly comes out as a jumble, which is too bad because I get the feeling that underneath all this stuff is an idea or two that Townshend is trying to get across.
Musically, it sounds like the Who but an older, crankier and softer version of the Who. The “Baba O’Reilly” inspired album opener “Fragments” is clearly meant to tell us that the Who – the Who we remember and loved – is back. The rest of the album seems mostly to confound that notion. Not that it’s all bad. Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son!) almost channels the late Keith Moon on the few tracks in which he is present (he certainly does in the included live tracks) and in a few places (“We got a Hit”) it sounds just like what we were expecting. Roger Daltrey’s voice is clearly much older and that shows in a few places. And what was he trying to prove by singing “In the Ether” with that low growly voice?
Overall, the album is a mixed bag. There are enough moments that catch my attention and pull me back but they almost always leave me scratching my head and wondering what’s really going on. That said, the album is still in medium rotation in my CD player – it seems that I keep going back to it because I think there is more there and I just can’t put my finger on it.