“Neither time, nor the deaths of founding members, nor claims that they'll never play together again seem to stop the legendary Who” (CdUniverse.com). They “retired following their 1982 farewell tour but…seven years later, … [surviving band members] Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle…embarked on a reunion tour” (Erlewine). More reunion tours followed over the next couple decades, but the band largely avoided the studio, failing to release any new albums for the rest of the ‘80s and the whole of the ‘90s.
In 2002, yet another Who reunion tour was nearly derailed when Entwistle died the night before the tour began. The next year, Townshend faced child pornography charges which were later dropped. Townshend and Daltrey seemed to find a new bond through the hardships and “began seriously talking about recording a new Who studio album” (Erlewine). “More than two decades removed from the Who's last studio offering, [the resulting 2006 album Endless Wire] evinces both a growth and a sense of tradition” (Sprague).
“Townshend needed to have Daltrey interpret his songs, which do confront many tough emotions and questions regarding faith, mortality and persecution, albeit often in oblique ways. For a writer as obsessed with concepts and fictionalized autobiography as Townshend, [the approach] often turns out to be more revealing than blunt confessionals” (Erlewine).
Daltrey’s singing “leans heavily on his blunt force, but also reveals a new subtlety that serves him very well” (Erlewine). “Instead of powering through the songs as he could tend to do in the past, Daltrey is truly interpreting Townshend's songs here, giving them nuanced, textured readings that cut close to the emotional quick of the tunes” (Erlewine). “Daltrey's voice is deeper and darker now, even in total roar – you can hear the extent to which he has punished it in long service to Townshend's songs” (Fricke). Still, even if his voice “may have lost some of its range and power over the years…Daltrey has developed into a better singer, and he helps ground Endless Wire” (Erlewine).
“Like much of the best of the Who's work, the best of Endless Wire …connect[s] at a gut level, even if it's in a considerably different way than it was in the past: instead of being visceral and immediate, this…music carries a slow burn” (Erlewine).
“This is partially because they are no longer driven by Moon and Entwistle, but quite frankly, this most manic of rhythm sections never really anchored the Who; Townshend always did with his furious windmills and propulsive rhythms, and there was never any question that this, along with his songs, formed the complex, contradictory heart of the Who, while Daltrey gave the songs both muscle and a commonality, undercutting Townshend's pretensions — or giving him a voice behind which to hide, a voice to act out his best and worst impulses” (Erlewine).
Instead, the band is rounded out by “top-notch professional support from drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Pino Palladino” (Erlewine) along with keyboadist John Bundrick. They “coalesce to create a remarkably consistent whole” (CdUniverse.com) who “lend enough muscle to the musical attack…to recall the Who's glory days” (CdUniverse.com), although “with their boundless energy replaced by a bittersweet melancholy undercurrent. It's a sound that fits Townshend's new songs, alternately sweetly sad, bitterly reflective and, despite it all, cautiously optimistic” (Erlewine).
“Opening with a synth riff [on Fragments] that strongly recalls, if not directly quotes, the famed loop underpinning ‘Baba O'Reilly,’ Endless Wire often hearkens back to previous Who albums in its themes, structure, and sound” (Erlewine). In this “quest for spiritual enlightment” (Sprague), “Daltrey asks ‘Are we breathing out or breathing in?’ and Townshend answers with a thrashing, crashing Gibson. When the volume is turned up, there are echoes of three decades ago” (Holter).
“The pummeling triplets of ‘The Punk Meets the Godfather’ resurface in” (Erlewine) “the powerful yet understated” (Erlewine) “Mike Post Theme” (Erlewine). “With its quiet verse and thunderous chorus, [it] recalls ‘Goin’ Mobile’ and longs for Moon to whack it into shape” (Holter).
That song and It's Not Enough “conjure images of Entwistle and Keith Moon” (Holter). ‘It’s Not Enough’ is a “surging rocker” Erlewine) whose “guitars are thick and crackling…while the harmonies behind Daltrey's controlled bellow are tight and gleaming, as if he's suddenly landed in the middle of Townshend's best solo album, Empty Glass” (Fricke). The song’s “lyrics are [also] riddled with the self-doubt of” (Erlewine) that album.
A Man in a Purple Dress is “a searing, bitter, anti-religion folk tune” (Erlewine) in which Townshend is “questioning faith” (Holter) with a “stark ’63-Dylan bite” (Fricke). “Townshend says he wrote [the song] after seeing Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ” (Fricke), but it also serves as commentary on “the public rush to judgment after Townshend's 2003 arrest for viewing child pornography online. (The charge was dropped.) ‘You are all the same, gilded and absurd,’ Daltrey sings with the same growling rage with which he defended his bandmate at the time” (Fricke).
“Black Widow's Eyes is literally about a love that kills, inspired by the fatal terrorist siege of a Russian school in 2005. ‘I fell right in love with you/As the blood came blowing through,’ Daltrey confesses, in Townshend's words, as the guitarist hits snarling power chords against Zak Starkey's neo-Moon-ish drumrolls and shrapnel-like cymbal spray” (Fricke). In this song and ‘Mike Post Theme,’ “Townshend's treble stabs over a focused bed of strum… [are] like the home demos on Townshend's Scoop collections but with a live-band punch” (Fricke).
“The closest thing to a good laugh on the album is God Speaks of Marty Robbins, in which Townshend, alone on vocals and guitar, dares to play Him on the eve of creation, looking forward to finishing the job so He can listen to his favorite country singer” (Fricke).
The “bizarre In the Ether” (Erlewine) features both “Broadway inflections [and] ….a rare Townshend lead vocal turn” (Sprague) in which “Townshend affects Tom Waits' patented growl” (Erlewine). Even though the song “goes off the tracks…it feels as if it was written from the heart” (Erlewine).
“The Who by Numbers-styled first half” (Erlewine), marked by that album’s “stark acoustic introspection” (Erlewine) “feels curiously disjointed” (Erlewine) from the album’s second half. This “ten-song suite” (Erlewine), called Wire & Glass, “is Townshend's score of sorts to his unpublished novella The Boy Who Heard Music” (Fricke). The story “follows the meandering path of a rock band…that, to some degree, parallels that of the Who” (Sprague). The band is “led by a character known as Ray High” (Sprague), “the central figure in” (Erlewine) Townshend's 1993 solo album Psychoderelict. He “functions as a semi-autobiographical distancing device for Townshend, particularly…where the narrative ebbs and flows and sometimes disappears completely” (Erlewine).
The mini-opera “also returns to themes that have consumed Townshend as a composer” (Fricke). The theme of “technology as a revolutionary force” (Fricke) was central to “Lifehouse Chronicles, [Townshend’s] often-muddled yet often-intriguing futuristic rock opera that seemed to suggest portions of a technologically saturated internet age” (Erlewine). There’s also the idea of “music as an instrument of spiritual transformation” (Fricke), a central message in The Who’s most celebrated Tommy and Quadrophenia rock operas.
“Townshend doesn't pull any punches in painting the protagonist, who starts off in the soaring” (Sprague) and “rampaging Sound Round” (Erlewine), "as a tortured visionary whose troubles and/or visions land him, in the darker, more introspective Pick Up the Peace, in an institution” (Sprague).
“The album's title track is about an Internet-like invention vital to the rock & roll revolt of the opera's teenage troublemakers. But the country-rock warmth is that of Rough Mix, Townshend's wonderful 1977 album with ex-Small Face Ronnie Lane” (Fricke).
The “song cycle” (Sprague) “manages to touch on every one of the band's strengths” (Erlewine). It “encompasses both triumph -- best revealed on the one-two punch of the eminently infectious We Got a Hit and They Made My Dream Come True…and the sort of tragedy evinced in Mirror Door” (Sprague). The latter song’s “‘See Me, Feel Me’-like climax…sums up Townshend's lifetime pursuit of the nirvana in rock, particularly that of the Who, better than any concept album. ‘You will find me in this song,’ Daltrey sings for him – Townshend's simple admission that there is nothing better in life than to be music” ( Fricke).
The album “ends with teatime instead of a bang” (Fricke) on the “haunting” (Erlewine) and “reflective finale, Tea & Theatre” (Fricke). The approach cements the fact that “the mini-opera…is an uneven success, a lot like Tommy. For all of the latter's historic worth, the original double LP was basically one album of pivotal, great Townshend songs and one of the connective pieces that advanced the story. "Wire & Glass" has the same fragmentary quality” (Fricke).
Speaking of fragments, the song ‘We Got a Hit’ “is too paltry at 1:18…A song about a hit single should at least be hit-single length” (Fricke).
‘Wire and Glass’ “stands as the greatest Who music since Who Are You, so it's a bit hard not to wish that the entire album had its thematic cohesion, muscular melody, and sense of purpose” (Erlewine), but “even the best Who albums had a tendency to not quite follow through on their concepts — the mock pirate-radio broadcast of The Who Sell Out is abandoned on the second side, Who's Next was pulled together from the flailing Lifehouse” (Erlewine). These were both “nevertheless triumphs given the sheer power of the band, or Townshend's writing” (Erlewine).
Like those records, “Endless Wire is not a slave to its concept; the songs fuel the album instead of the other way around” (Erlewine). If sticking to the theme throughout “meant losing the quite wonderful highlights of the first half, it may not have been worth it because they're not only strong songs, they give this record its ragged heart” (Erlewine).
Endless Wire “does not rank with the band's best work” (Holter), but “the novelty of new recordings from Daltrey and Townshend is probably enough…to coax classic rock diehards into peeking behind the Wire” (Sprague). “Its parts don't quite fit together, and not all of the parts work on their own” (Erlewine), but the “intrigue that lurks within is sure to keep folks ensnared for the long run” (Sprague). The album “is an endearingly human, impassioned work that more than justifies Townshend's and Daltrey's decision to continue working as the Who. Hopefully, it will lead to another record or two but if it doesn't, Endless Wire is certainly a better final Who album than It's Hard, which is quite an accomplishment after a quarter-century hiatus” (Erlewine).