Empty Glass

Pete Townshend

Eel Pie, 1980


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Pete Townshend had already released two solo albums in the 1970s, the first a little-heard side project (Who Came First) and the second a fun jam session with Ronnie Lane (of the Faces) called Rough Mix. But in 1979, the death of Keith Moon shook Townshend to the core…and, as always, Townshend turned to writing music to grapple with his demons.

However, instead of pouring out his thoughts on a Who record as he had for the last 15 years, Townshend instead opted to put most of the best and most personal work on a new solo record, saving the rest for the Who’s lackluster 1981 effort Face Dances. Roger Daltrey understandably felt betrayed by this, feeling the Who could have done the material justice; not surprisingly, Empty Glass was far better received by critics than Face Dances, and it became pretty clear at that point that the Who was done.

The thing is, Townshend had a lot on his mind, and it may not have worked in the context or expectations of a Who record. He dealt with the death of a close friend and his normal anxieties with drugs, at first, and then spirituality, taking solace in both his family and in God. That is fodder for a strong solo statement, not with a band name where people expected to hear “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the 368th time that year while Townshend leapt around doing windmills. Essentially, he had to go solo at this point.

But make no mistake, Empty Glass is a raucous pop-rock record, addressing tough topics in a catchy and biting fashion. Townshend was both drawn to and repelled by punk, loving the movement and attitude but not the posing, and this dichotomy is addressed in the stadium rave-up and minor hit “Rough Boys” and “Jools And Jim.” The latter is decent musically but vicious lyrically, taking shots at critics (“Typewriter bangers on / You’re all just hangers on”), punks (“Anyone can have an opinion … Anyone can buy some leather”) and society (“They don’t give a shit Keith Moon is dead … Morality ain’t measured in a room he wrecked”).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Keep On Working” has a playful British feel that leads nicely into “Cat’s In The Cupboard,” an overlooked rocker in Townshend’s catalog and one that Daltrey would have sung the hell out of; the harmonica is a nice touch, growing in intensity as the song plows forward. “A Little Is Enough,” a Who song worked up for Who Are You but left off, is re-recorded here as well with a synthesizer solo (this being 1980, after all) and lyrics explicitly comparing love to drug use (“Common sense's tell me not to try'n continue / But I'm after a piece of that diamond in you / So keep an eye open / My spirit ain't broken / Your love is so incredible”). Also of note is the ambitious “Gonna Get You,” the seven-minute closing track with an extended instrumental jam and staccato, near-nonsensical lyrics that would sound great in concert.

Townshend alternates on many songs between his falsetto and normal voice, with the occasional growl thrown in, which allows the songs to stay sharp instead of settling; witness the conflicted title track, wherein Townshend questions pretty much everything about stardom and his life before admitting “My life’s a mess / I wait for you to pass / I stand here at the bar / I hold an empty glass.” The literal meaning of the song is a valid interpretation, but the deeper meaning – explained by Townshend – is based on an old poem and the philosophy that you don’t turn to God when things are going well, when your glass is full, but instead when things are empty and you need Him to fill it.

Heady stuff, but again, delivered with flair and focus. And if this was the best of the album, it would be quote good, but the cherry on top is “Let My Love Open The Door,” a completely efficient, sincere, straightforward pop love song with a kinda cheesy synth riff and a great hook. It was a hit that firmly broke away from the Who mold – nobody could see Daltrey singing this one on stage – and the moribund Face Dances only solidified that Pete the Artist was ready to move on.

Empty Glass is the sound of an artist breaking from his past (lyrically, if not completely sonically), tackling the struggles of his heart and mind and finding necessary things to say. And if parts of the album sound straight out of the ‘80s, the spirit and sound of the best songs transcend any time to be ranked among the best songs Townshend wrote in that decade. Worth checking out for Who fans, casual fans, those who enjoy singer/songwriter types, and those who always thought “Let My Love Open The Door” was a catchy little number.

Rating: B

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