I'm going to go out on a limb here and say WHO ARE YOU stands as on of The Who's best albums and one of my personal favorites. The first real Who album (not counting WHO'S BETTER, WHO'S BEST) I ever heard was WHO ARE YOU, a tape I bought back in 1997 at a pawn shop. (I also bought WHO'S BETTER at the same pawn shop). I immediately fell in love with it.
Another statement I'm probably going to catch a lot of flack for is that I found this much easier to really "dig" than that esteemed classic, WHO'S NEXT. While WHO'S NEXT has three perennial classics which this album has nothing on (Baba, Behind Blue Eyes, Won't Get Fooled Again), I found myself returning to this more than WHO'S NEXT. As time progresses, I can more fully appreciate WHO'S NEXT, although I still think that had been "Pure and Easy," and "Too Much of Anything" been included it would have been a stronger album. Another thing WHO'S NEXT has going for it is the aborted LIFEHOUSE project, but that is neither here nor there. Although I'm coming to the conclusion WHO'S NEXT is better, it took some time.
As for my relationship to The Who, I find it hard to get enthusiastic about their early, punkish material. While I think all the early tracks that always get anthologised are excellent cuts (Substitute, Kids are Alright, etc), their other stuff I'm not that thrilled about. But then again, I find it hard to really like LONDON CALLING by The Clash either. Just not my type of music. So it's only natural I prefer The Who's later work to their early stuff, and as this is a personal bias I must admit it.
Thematically, WHO ARE YOU is an album about trying to revitalise one's art. No less than five songs are about the music industry (I'm including the title cut, as it was written about punk not acknowledging The Who as a band or as an influence). "New Song" is one of the most cynical jibes I've heard against the music industry, and, to prove its point, makes some references to QUADROPHENIA's closing track, "Love Reign O'er Me." "Music Must Change," with its rather generic sounding chord changes, uses this facet to make a point. "Sister Disco" and "Guitar and Pen" continue this theme. "Guitar and Pen," is one of the best explorations of the creative process I've heard, as a previous reviewer also noted. "Love is Coming Down," sounds suspiciously like "See Me, Feel Me."
Another interesting thing about this is it has three cuts from Entwhistle, which had not happened for some time. "905" is a little SF story, having some great quotes in it. "Trick of the Light," deals with a man's visit to a prostitute and how paranoid the man is about it (this also shows, to me, anyway, why this type of sex is meaningless in the first place. Sex is for intimacy, and this type you don't know the person to begin with). "Had Enough," deals with a man burning all his bridges.
What makes The Who a good band is this: they use what could otherwise be criticised as the band just recycling the same ideas is they are using this facet of this particular album for an effect. They are at an artistic crossroads. Townshend is trying to make his music mean something, and this album documents that struggle. Because this is obvious, WHO ARE YOU becomes much more accomplished as it acknowledges this struggle rather than tries to pass it off for a collection of "new songs." These critics mistake these effects as legitimate weaknesses and slam this album, which is sad indeed.
As a result, WHO ARE YOU stands as one of The Who's essential albums. It's a picture of the band attempting to make music relevant to culture, and the failures often cited against this album are used to demonstrate what is wrong with music as perceived by Townshend. Townshend's saying the fight to stay artistically viable will not be easy, but it is possible.
Overall, the album feels tired and sluggish, and yet somehow this music never fails to excite me. The album raises from being flawed to being an artistic accomplishment.
Unfortunately, after this album Moon died and The Who went downhill. But from the original quartet, you couldn't ask for a better swan song.
P. S. Keith's sitting in a chair that says "Not to be taken away." This fact is now clothed in eerie premonition, as he died shortly thereafter.
P. P. S. Like Dylan's EMPIRE BURLESQUE, this is given a five star rating to balance out the poor ratings, but in truth I'd give it 4 & 1/2 stars.