Pete Townshend

Eel Pie, 1993

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


What an unholy, fascinating, mess of an album. If this is indeed Pete Townshend’s final solo album of original new material – and it’s been 23 years, so I’m guessing it is – he picked a hell of a way to complete his journey.

Unsurprisingly, Psychoderelict is a concept album, not really a rock opera but certainly a story with clearly defined characters, a beginning and middle and end of sorts, and all the trappings expected of an hour-long album of this magnitude. It’s not unlike David Bowie’s Outside, released with a convoluted story, some good hard rock, and an ambitious concept that overshadowed the whole affair. Neither of these albums gained much traction in the music world of the mid ‘90s, even among longtime fans, but they should not be dismissed either.

The first major note is that this is the hardest Pete had rocked since Empty Glass – even on the Tommy tour in 1989 with all the special guests, he played an acoustic guitar – and it’s a welcome return to form. Whether it was a response to grunge or a pent-up desire to unleash the noise, songs like “English Boy,” the bass-driven “Outlive The Dinosaur,” and the “Meher Baba” instrumental segments are fine marriages of concept and noise that prove Townshend’s ambition was alive and well in the ‘90s. The “Meher Baba M4” segment actually leans industrial, sampling the synth part from “Who Are You” but adding a booming trip-hop beat and suggesting yet another dimension to Townshend’s capabilities.

On a strictly musical basis, the disc is probably in Townshend’s top three, much better than The Iron Giant (which preceded this by four years), inasmuch as it showcases all facets of the artist. And whether you came on board with The Who or with “Let My Love Open The Door” you will find something here to love. Certainly, “Outlive The Dinosaur” is one of the coolest songs Townshend had written since “Face The Face” in 1985, letting the bass guitar be the lead instrument, adding some acoustic guitar coloring, and delivering the vocals in a sort of clenched, sardonic whisper. “Hope I die before I get old” has now given way to “Time is generous, more take more / I must outlive the dinosaur.” my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The quirky side of Townshend is on display on “Let’s Get Pretentious” and “Now And Then,” while the always-endearing vulnerable side appears in both the album’s concept and on “I Am Afraid,” wherein Pete bares his soul to God: “By my religion I stand here naked / I cannot fake it with God as witness…I am afraid / As I stand beside you / I have denied you.” However, at the bloated run time, the songs don’t keep up this level of quality, tapering off after the jaunty rave-up “Predictable,” with a couple more “Meher Baba” pieces and some other originals that restate previous themes to lesser results.

But that is the music side. The other side of the record is the story, and rather than tell it through the lyrics like Quadrophenia, Townshend brings in actors to read from a script. Thus, about half the songs have snippets of dialogue at the beginning (or, worse, in the middle) that explain the story and move it along. It’s a huge momentum killer and a pretty annoying distraction…not least because the story isn’t all that convoluted. Recognizing this, and noticing the flagging sales, the record company released a version of the album subtitled Music Only, omitting all of this dialogue. It vastly improved the record; however, it’s pretty tough to find.

The story is a critical look at the relationship between the media, fans and musicians as well as the mental travails of a once-popular rock star, written (as you may have guessed) by Townshend essentially about himself, at least as a starting point. Ray High is a former ‘60s rocker who was quite popular but has slipped into obscurity; his manager Rastus is desperate to get him to record something new and goes to local rock-music reporter Ruth Streeting to complain. The two concoct a scheme by pretending to be a 15-year-old fan of Ray’s named Rosalyn, sending him a naked picture and a love letter, and Ray responds to the connection with notes and lyrics and a demo of a song from his unreleased Gridlife project, believing he has found a kindred spirit. Once the affair is exposed, “the resulting controversy drives sales of “Rosalyn’s” record as well as Ray’s back catalog. The manager is happy to be making bank, but an upset Ray confronts Ruth, first to ask why she would throw Rosalyn and himself under the bus, then eventually to say he knew it was Ruth all along. Whether out of guilt or genuine attraction, Ruth decides to produce Ray’s new album, the long-abandoned Gridlife, and the story pretty much ends.

The obvious connections here deal in satire about media and manager manipulation, shopworn clichés about alcoholic ex-rock stars and Townshend’s own history, including his famous abandoned project Lifehouse, which he finally completed and rolled out in the late ‘90s to a certain extent. Gridlife even includes a sample of “Baba O’Riley” to drive this point home. But Psychoderelict never feels like it’s that pretentious or autobiographical, which is to Townshend’s credit.

Audacious, ambitious, and frustrating, the record is everything good and bad about Townshend the solo artist. It’s worth hearing for fans, even if they’re not likely to return to it as often as, say, White City or Empty Glass.

Rating: B-

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