One Life’s Enough: The Who’s It’s Hard at 40
Looking back on one of the band’s most underrated albums
It’s Hard has never had it easy. As the final album from The Who’s first epoch, it encapsulated what had gone wrong with the band for many of their fans.
Drummer Keith Moon was dead, and Kenney Jones was no fit substitute. Guitarist and primary songwriter Pete Townshend’s heart wasn’t in it. His drug issues limited his songwriting. The band had grown too old. Looking back 40 years later, these criticisms might have some merit, but they miss the focal points of a long underrated album.
The Who weren’t the same band, it’s true. It only takes a few seconds of the album for that idea to become clear. “Athena” begins the record with a quick guitar hit, but it lacks the bombast of the flamenco strums so often associated with Townshend. The band, in studio, had been steadily moving away from the kind of rock they helped originate ever since, well, they helped originate it. After Who Are You, Face Dances and the two preceding Townshend solo albums, nothing about the current sound should have been surprising. While bassist John Entwistle would always feel at home with burning rock numbers, Townshend’s listening was scattered, and the band’s 1980s releases had more ties to New Wave than windmilling guitar attacks.
Jones, a mod rocker from the Small Faces and the Faces, has received better credit for his drumming with The Who over the years. He wasn’t Keith Moon by any stretch, but neither Face Dances nor It’s Hard called for that sort of frenetic work. He locks in well with the band and allows Entwistle to take off wherever he wants to go. Entwistle got to contribute three songs to the album, “It’s Your Turn,” “Dangerous,” and “One at a Time.” “Dangerous” mixes the band’s rocks roots perfectly with its contemporary pop sensibility, but “One at a Time” stands out by being a quintessential Entwistle number: driving, dark and bitter, with an insult laden with meaning at the end, as “clapped out Humber” says so much about the whole situation in just three (very British) words.
Entwistle’s muscular contributions are siginificant because Townshend wasn’t at his peak. The band recorded the album with him just out of rehab, feeling rushed and unfocused. The traditional narrative suggests that he was putting his best writing toward his solo album. That argument may be true, but few songs from either Empty Glass or All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (he wasn’t at his best for album-titling either, apparently) would have suited The Who.
In his autobiography, singer Roger Daltrey remembers Townshend as “tearing his hair out trying to come up with new songs,” and felt like the material didn’t stand up to their early work, partly because of Townshend and partly because of Jones’ by-the-book drum breaks. Townshend knows that Daltrey didn’t want to release the album when he heard it, but in his own book suggests the problem had more to do with the rushed recording process than anything, and he offers praise for Daltrey’s nuanced vocals on “One Life’s Enough” and “Cry If You Want.”
The former cut should should have been a deep album cut on a solo record, but the latter remains a classic, every instrument and voice the sound of anger and frustration. If Townshend struggled to write in the early ’80s, it doesn’t show here. Instead, it points to one of the challenges of It’s Hard, as the band moved into middle age and had different sorts of issues to think through. Rock hadn’t yet faced this point so directly and if the Who fumbled a little, they were on the right path (Townshend’s solo “Slit Skirts” has about as un-rock ‘n’ roll them as you can imagine), and songs like “Cry If You Want” provide an emotional continuity with the past while thinking through midlife concerns.
VIDEO: The Who “Eminence Front”
The album’s high point comes with “Eminence Front,” a track that remains a concert staple. Townshend’s concern with falsity, hypocrisy, and the truth continued on the album’s title track, with its search for something deeper than the usual approach to life. Only in the outro do we see the despair riddled through the song. The singer doesn’t find his way to deeper meaning through bravado, but worries that he’ll never find it at all. The catchy tune poses difficult questions.
Townshend couldn’t maintain it for the whole album and whether it was the lineup, the temperament of the group, or the rushed recording, the band couldn’t keep it up for the whole disc either. “I’ve Known No War” provokes split reactions, it feels more like an almost-there track rather than a hit or a miss. Daltrey’s performance shines, but the lyrics could use a little rehashing, and the band never achieves the big muscle the song warrants (Moon could have helped here, but the whole arrangement doesn’t quite work).
“Athena” might be the best song on the album – and along with “Eminence Front” is one of the two catchiest – but it’s also the strangest. It can make a listener’s head bop without stirring anything else, partly because it never wants to rock and partly because it doesn’t go anywhere lyrically. It started off as a song about being rejected by a girl, but that doesn’t ring clear. A writer like Elvis Costello would have made this either painful or creepy, but Townshend left it just sort of wandering, some scattered thoughts placed over an earworm.
A couple other tracks remain forgettable at best, but after four decades, the core of It’s Hard holds up far better than the album’s reputation suggests. Even the misses only fail in comparison to the legendary music in the band’s catalog. The Who in the ’80s splintered in actuality, but their final record suggests a group in transition, finding new ways to take on new topics. Townshend still an eye for sharp cultural analysis as well as personal insight, and the hooks were there.
The band said farewell (the first time) with an album revealing some cracks, but also one suggesting some curious paths and–perhaps most relevant–one that remains a strong listen even above its context.
AUDIO: The Who It’s Hard (full album)
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One thought on “One Life’s Enough: The Who’s It’s Hard at 40”
I read this article and listened to the whole record with fresh ears, trying to be objective. It sucks. The lyrics are sub-mental. And lazy. “Think about how long it took / To get over that sudden Yuk / When in the mirror you would look.” The structure of “when in the mirror you would look” exactly resembles the way friends of the bat mitzvah girl will say, “you did great on your big day / now with our new toys, we will play.” It’s cute for 13 year olds. Embarrassing for rock’s foremost opera lyricist. Boo. Zero stars.