Thursday, June 7, 2018

Review of The Who's "It's Hard"

I posted this review earlier this morning:

Review Summary: Often vilified by critics and Who fans alike, this album deserves more credit than it has usually received.

It's Hard, released in 1982, was The Who's tenth studio album, and it's the one which over the years has received the least love, even from the band itself. It was the second album released following the death of Who drummer Keith Moon in 1978, following 1981's Face Dances, and as I explained when I reviewed that album, many Who fans thought The Who should have disbanded after his death. Small wonder, then, that both of those albums were denigrated by a music public that was still reeling from the loss of one of the rock world's most interesting and beloved characters. Thirty-six years have passed since the album's release, though, and at this point, we should be able to look back, listen to the LP with a more objective ear, and ask ourselves, "Is It's Hard really that bad?" Guys, it's the frickin' Who!

One of the problems we have when we look back at the output of a band like The Who is that their reputation is dominated by their middle period. Their output prior to 1969 (which included three LPs, a whole bunch of singles, and several compilations that included music that hadn't previously been released on an album), was quirky and fun, but while it had earned them a devoted following, it hadn't yet made them into a world-revered band. It was the three albums released in that middle period, Tommy (1969), Who's Next (1971) and Quadrophenia (1973) (plus their reputation as a live band, which had been helped both by their appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival and by their 1970 release Live at Leeds) which cemented their reputation as one of the best bands on the planet. All of their later output, including the studio albums released with Moon, paled in comparison to that one-two-three punch of three of the greatest albums in rock history. So if you take It's Hard, compare it to those three albums, then add in the factor of the heartbreak at Moon's death, it's easy to see how this 1982 release could have been underappreciated at the time.

With that in mind, let's take a fresh look at It's Hard and see what we find. There are twelve tracks on the original release, including nine written by Pete Townshend and three by John Entwistle. Of those twelve, there were definitely some that can be easily discarded. Two of the Entwistle tracks ("It's Your Turn" and "One at a Time") are far from his best efforts, and Townshend songs such as "Cooks County" and "One Life's Enough" aren't much better. So that's a third of the LP dismissed which not much impact.

Let's look at the better tracks, though. Of the remaining eight numbers, I'd rate four as really good, two as pretty good, and two more as decent. Two highlights stand out (for me, anyway). "Eminence Front" is the song that has shown the longest legs since the album's release. It's a slow, brooding track with a long instrumental lead-in that features a nice synth pattern serving as the song's spine, embellished with lots of little bits of guitar and keyboard noodling until the main guitar kicks in. Townshend himself takes the lead vocal on this song. You young 'uns may think you've never heard of "Eminence Front", but you'd be wrong. It has been used over the years as bumper or intro music in a variety of films, television shows, video games and commercials, and to this day, I can't turn on my television without hearing it pop up in advertisements for GMC cars.

The other highlight is the album's title track, "It's Hard". This is an excellent rock anthem sung by Roger Daltrey (who is in excellent voice here, and throughout the album). It makes use of a somewhat subtle (maybe even nitpicking) wordplay, in a series of comparisons throughout the verses, that take the form of "many people can ___, but only a few can ___". (Eg, "Any gang can scatter -- few can form/Any kid can chatter -- few can inform"). The choruses then hit us with a catchy little synth flourish, while Daltrey explains that "It's hard/It's very very very very hard." Yeah, some of the analogies are silly, but the music itself here is kind of stirring, and I've always been surprised this one hasn't become more popular with Who fans (and rock fans in general) than it is. The truth is, if It's Hard had been released last week instead of 36 years ago, this song would be in serious contention for my favorite song of 2018 so far.

There are other strong tracks, too. "Athena" is the track that might have received the most radio airplay at the time of the album's release (at least here in America) and deservedly so. It's a brassy song about a turbulent love relationship sung by Daltrey, with a strangely beautiful and delicate bridge sung by Townshend. "A Man Is a Man" is another of a series of tracks which Townshend has written over the years about his spiritual guide, the Indian guru Meher Baba. This one compares traditional notions of masculinity against what Townshend would argue is a more enlightened model, with an emphasis on emotional honesty and compassion over physical strength and toughness. Finally, "Dangerous" is Entwistle's strongest contribution to the album (from a writing perspective, anyway). It's a straightforward, but catchy, rock number with a vaguely ominous feel.

It's Hard was The Who's last studio album until the release of Endless Wire 24 years later. By that time, Entwistle was also deceased, and rock fans and critics alike were in a more open state of mind to a new release by The Who. I'm hoping, however, that now that so much time has passed, people will take the opportunity to go back and listen to It's Hard, and enjoy it for what it is. No, it doesn't even approach the great Who albums from that period of 1969 through 1973. But it's a better album than people have usually given it credit for being. As I said earlier ... It's still the frickin' Who!

Rating: 3 of 5 stars