Who Are You is an album that has troubled me ever since I brought it home and listened to it for the first time. It is especially disconcerting that it should trouble me so much, because frankly, the last Who album I liked was Who's Next which is, after all, seven years old. Quadrophenia left me cold, but I respected it as an ambitious, almost heroic, failure and The Who By Numbers, which also left me completely unaffected, was conversely so non-ambitious and unassuming that its mere presence as a simple collection of songs seemed a plus. Who Are You, however, just gnaws at me, and I've been returning to it with a dark, almost demented fascination asking myself can it really be so bad? And more importantly, why?
It's that second question that ultimately forces me to conclude that the four ghosts pictured on the cover of the record are not the Who. They may be named Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon and they may look and sound somewhat like the Who I used to know but this doesn't sound like a band. What it does sound like is a disjointed collection of utterly humorless and grim lyrics and music that reflect an alienation from simple life that is downright stupifying. Of the six songs written by Townshend, three are about writing songs and they are so arid and laden with pretense that one reacts more with anger than plain sadness over Townshend's apparent void in regard to subject matter. "In your hands you hold your only friend / Never spend your guitar and your pen." Thanks for the tip, Pete. How utterly insane that a gifted songwriter who used to be able to construct such imaginative and observant narratives outside of himself ("I" as persona—"I'm A Boy," "Tattoo," "Pictures Of Lily," etc.) should see no inspiration anymore save reflections on the artistic process. "Music Must Change" takes four and one half minutes to tell us that a search is underway for a new kind of song that will, should it ever arrive, "Crush mountains as old as the earth." Meanwhile, the piece itself just plods along, as exciting as the sound of shoes stepping numbly on pavement that opens the song. And, of yes—the one joke on the record: a coin dropping to the floor. Coin. Change. Get It?
You could take one of so many old Who songs, and everything that Townshend is grappling with was there, as plain as day. Even a relatively minor song like "Our Love Was Is" makes everything on Who Are You sound ridiculously weak and yes, goddammit, OLD. Lyrical confusion about a love affair which is over (the word "is" never pops up in the course of the song) and which communicates completely all the leaps and crashes of a tumultuous affair: "Our love was famine, frustration. We only acted out an imitation of what we knew love should have been…. Then, suddenly…. Our love was flying, our love was soarin', our love was shinin' like a summer mornin'." A capella angelic choir singing up in the skies and then … Keith Moon's drums, signaling confusion and chaos … the first note of that guitar solo, a literal scream of emotion, elation and pain thrown together at the same instant. Three minutes—a whole universe—a song, what music is all about. Expression of feeling. Not expression of expression.
Billy Altman, "Adios el Kabong," in Creem (© copyright 1978 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 10, No. 6, November, 1978, p. 56.