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The Who - It's Hard CD (album) cover


The Who



2.59 | 106 ratings

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3 stars The Who's last album for a very long time to come has all the earmarks of one assembled only to complete the terms of the contract with their label and many critics have dismissed it as a throwaway. However, I refuse to believe that Pete, Roger and John had such little respect for their amazing legacy that they would carelessly soil it by not giving it the old college try. The truth is that this is all they had left in the tank after 18 years of giving every ounce of their souls to the group and the Who's NASCAR race was over. The lyrics betray a bitter and jaded viewpoint of what rock & roll was turning into just as the MTV virus was spreading like swine flu through the industry unabated. I wish they would have gone out like the Beatles did with Abbey Road but it is what it is.

They don't do themselves any favors by opening with their most insipid single ever, the cream puff "Athena." First of all, it's a fantasy crush about here-today-gone-tomorrow movie actress Teresa Russell and secondly the repeated line of "she's just a girl - she's a bomb" solidifies this tune's position as the band's all-time bottom feeder. Skip it. John Entwistle's contributions are some of the highlights of the album, starting with "It's Your Turn." It has a big, cascading opening to take your mind off the previous cow patty and it has some heft to it. Kenney Jones' drumming is forceful and Pete Townshend's taut guitar lines lend a palpable tension. John's words offer a warning for those who envy him to be careful of what they wish for. "There's a stranger inside me somewhere/that shadow behind me don't even look like me/an echoed apology/he's a wolf in sheep disguise/I wake up in places I don't even recognize/pretender in paradise."

The most disconcerting trait about this record is that often they sound like trend followers instead of trend setters. The "New Wave" genre that was all the rage in the late 70s had just about petered out but its influence is substantial on "Cooks County" and The Who don't wear that cheap suit well at all. There's a pretentious, minimalist undertow lurking just beneath the surface and it comes off more like something The Knack would've done than the titans of arena rock. Pete tries to say something profound in his lyrics about the woeful suffering, hunger and loneliness rampant in the world but he gives away his true feelings with the line "this song is so long/it ends up where it begins." The album's namesake tune has a certain Elvis Costello & The Attractions slant to it but it's still a step upward. Singer Roger Daltrey's use of his lower register on the initial verses adds a mean edge to the number and Townshend's weary statement that "anyone can do anything/if they hold the right card/so I'm thinking about my life now/I'm thinking very hard/deal me another hand, Lord/this one's very hard." is very revealing but, taken as a whole, the tune still falls below their high standards.

Entwistle's "Dangerous" is one of his better compositions and I'm willing to bet it was inspired by Genesis' "Duke" LP. It has a grandiose intro that's repeated a few times, a pulsing guitar/bass platform and a convincing vocal performance by Roger. One gets a sense of foreboding from John's introspective lyrics when Daltrey belts "fences, we put up defenses/then we come to our senses/it may keep us out/but it keeps us in/and that makes us dangerous/we're all dangerous to ourselves." By far the most familiar cut (and with reason aplenty) is "Eminence Front" and I especially love the programmed synthesizer that bounces through the song. They allow the infectious groove to simmer patiently like a good Louisiana gumbo long before Pete begins to sing while his guitar jabs and stabs like an ice pick. Entwistle holds back until after the first verse but, to cop a dated phrase, just listen to what the man is puttin' down when he barges in. It's greatness. Pete captures the phoniness of the coke-crazed in-crowd of the day with words such as "the snow packs/as the skier tracks/and people forget/forget they're hiding/behind an eminence front." I'm pretty sure he was including himself in that gang, too.

The haunting "I've Known No War" features a chiming piano chord banging over slap-happy drums and my thoughts are "what would Moonie have done with this?" It makes me miss his unmistakable stamp even more. The most unusual part of the song comes in the middle when they let the wide-open spaces rule for 13 unembellished bars before a very subtle but excellent symphonic score creeps in like a fog bank. Methinks they kept the orchestra too far down in the mix but maybe that's just my symphonic prog monster demanding MORE. (Heel, Fido!) Penned amidst the constant atomic threat of the Cold War, Townshend reminisces about the brutal, hand-to-hand combat tactics employed by armies in previous generations and, tongue firmly in cheek, presents the bright side. "I'll never know war/and if I ever know it/the glimpse will be short/fireball in the sky/no front line battle cries can be heard/as the button is pushed by a soul that's been bought." Unfortunately he was wrong as enemies have just gotten slicker about how to kill/maim each other without resorting to nuclear annihilation. The calming "One Life's Enough" follows and it's a short but pleasant piece that starts in an operatic motif before evolving into a blues ballad. The lyrics are a sighing glance back at youthful romance as Townshend's skill on piano shines through.

The next three tunes are a disappointment. John's one-man attempt at being the USC marching band is admirable during the onset of "One at a Time" but it gets to be way too frantic down the road. The synths on the bridge almost rescue the song but once they're gone it returns to its jarring, brittle ways. It's The Boss meets the Eagles on "Why Did I Fall For That?" but, despite some decent lyrics about naively believing political promises ("we're impotent and neutered like whining cats/we've found the piper but we've lost the rats"), Kenney's sloppy drum track in particular drags it down and they didn't bother to fix it. "A Man is a Man" is a gallant try at creating another memorable Who rock ballad but it sounds forced (even the stilted words) and, once again, much of the lack of drama can be blamed on Jones' loose stick work. At least they go out with a roar. The military snare approach on "Cry If You Want" actually works quite well. It marches underneath the band as they punch out this angry spit-wad of a tune with a vengeance. Here Townshend sums up his crushed ideals with "now you know your leaders lied/does it stop you acting snide?/or are you still a boy that cried/tears now surely long since dried/cry if you want." The capper comes when Pete takes out his frustration and pent up fury on his defenseless guitar as he blazes through the distorted power chords to the very end.

Despite its bothersome unevenness, "It's Hard" has its moments and is far from unlistenable but the trio of remaining survivors that had been there from the beginning surely knew this was their last rodeo together and it shows up in the uncharacteristic frayed edges. As the gruesome cover art conveys, the pinball wizard had been replaced with the Space Duel toggle-stick punk and it was time for them to journey on as individuals. 2.5 stars averaged upward for the captivating and still relevant "Eminence Front."

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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