12/14/2012 09:18 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Music Must Change: The Who's 'Who Are You'

With all of the attention that has been given to The Who's "Quadrophenia" album in the last year or so, it is obvious that modern Who fans need to latch on to some other cultish classic of their career to wave in the faces of the unenlightened. My suggestion is that the ever-underestimated "Who Are You" should be the next Who album that fans and music magazines alike rediscover.

The "Who Are You" album was cursed by what many consider among the greatest losses of rock and roll: Released August 18, 1978, it preceded the death of drummer Keith Moon on September 7 from the lethal combination of a sedative overdose and alcohol by mere weeks. While most conceded that Moon had not been in top form for years, that did not change the fact that with his death at age 32, the band had lost an icon, an immense talent, and a well-known public face. In addition, guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle were somewhat distracted during the recording of the album, both working on solo material of their own.

Although the album had achieved charts positions of #2 and #6 (in the U.S. and U.K. respectively), it was immediately overshadowed by the band's new headline, and unfortunately, it appears to have largely faded from public memory with the exception of its title track. In their career, The Who have played fewer than half of "Who Are You"'s tracklist live.

However, if you are able to get past the album's sometimes uncharacteristic synth-heavy sound and the enormous amount of drama that surrounded the album's creation, you will discover an overlooked gem of the band's career and of late 1970s music in general. The Who's musicianship, as usual, is exceptional, and even though it is clear that Moon was struggling, the perfect alchemy between the band remains intact on this, The Who's final LP in their classic lineup. This album reunites the group with producer Glyn Johns, who previously worked with them on their 1971 classic "Who's Next."

However, the casual Who fan should be warned that these are not the same sounds fans have heard before -- while "Who Are You" is undoubtedly different than the the band's previous albums, Townshend's brutally honest, bleak views of his society heading full-throttle into our modern era (and Entwistle's, as he never had as large a songwriting presence on a Who album as he did on this one) come through in some of the most powerful songs of his career. Even just comparing the incisive but somewhat lighthearted "905" with the melancholy desperation of "Love Is Coming Down," which concerns an individual trying over and over again to commit suicide, we see an incredible range of emotion. And that is not to say that Townshend's characteristic bitterness is not still present in the lyrics of the album as well -- it is, in abundance.

Just as many of us today speculate about what possible direction modern music could be heading, Townshend speculates too on the direction of music from the late 1970s. From the crisp, synth-driven "Sister Disco" (which half-mourns disco, and half-celebrates its demise) to the strange lyrics and turns of "Music Must Change," many of Townshend's lyrics on "Who Are You" surpass simply accounting his anger at the changing times, and head into a subtler realm that also encompasses his bewilderment as to where society is going and what will be rendered obsolete in its next metamorphosis. Townshend's own fear of becoming obsolete and forgotten is tangible on most of the album's tracks, and Daltrey's vocals, at perhaps their strongest and most expressive, not only carry out, but heighten his desperation.

Interestingly, by the time "Who Are You" was released, Daltrey's role in the band had changed significantly from what it had been early on. Until 1974′s "Who By Numbers" album, Pete Townshend was mainly concerned with writing specifically Who songs, but after it and the release of his first solo album (ironically titled "Who Came First"), he was more concerned with writing Pete Townshend songs. By 1978, Daltrey was not interpreting the same kind of material Townshend had written before -- instead, he was doing something much more complex. Some even maintain that Townshend was no longer truly writing for Daltrey, and although that might be true, Daltrey's interpretations are no less powerful -- perhaps they are even more so.

When The Who recorded "Who Are You," the massive supply of songs that Townshend had originally written for the band's ill-fated Lifehouse project was not yet exhausted. Thus, some songs, including "Music Must Change" and leadoff track "New Song" were remnants of the intended magnum opus that Townshend himself called "a disaster," doomed to fail because supposedly, no one else could understand it. Dealing with dystopian themes, it is impossible to say whether Townshend knew how much of what he was talking about in Lifehouse (whatever he was talking about in Lifehouse) would still be on the table 40 years later.

To say that "Who Are You" is still relevant is an understatement, for it is not only still relevant, but it perhaps more relevant than it has ever been. It is an unmistakably modern album, and while it is admittedly bleak, it is also heroic in its utter frustration, honesty and intensity.

In 2012, we are once again wondering where we are going, and what will remain once we get there. The optimists among us believe we are on the precipice of a new creative revolution while the more cynical of us consider popular music as a whole to be irrevocably damaged, but no matter what the future may bring, many agree that music today is suffering a serious creative slump. Like thousands before us, we are all asking what could possibly be next -- and when it will finally surface.

"Who Are You" may very well be among the least examined and analyzed of The Who's albums, but as of now, it has shown to be among the most prophetic. Whether or not the dystopia we live in is literal, there is no question that "Who Are You" manages to capture the forced isolation of modern society as few albums ever have before. A fascinating mass of contradiction, the album manages to balance both the meditative and the visceral, the aggressive and the introverted, the meticulous and the wild, the synthetic and the powerfully organic. "Who Are You" deserves another listen from our jaded 21st century ears, and in fact, it would do us a lot of good as well -- as emotional and incisive an album as has ever been recorded, we could very well learn something, not only about the 1970s, and not only about The Who, but about our present day predicament, and how the desolation of today could lead to the artwork of tomorrow.