I have a strange and fierce love for Petra Haden‘s new album, an a cappella rendition of The Who Sell Out.
“The Who Sell Out” was originally one of The Who’s early albums (1967); it contains such songs as “Armenia City in the Sky,” “I Can’t Reach You,” “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hands,” and (most famously) “I Can See For Miles.” It’s also a concept album; it has the format of a radio broadcast, complete with callouts for the radio station and mock commercials.
It’s been years since I’ve listened to “The Who Sell Out,” years since I had even thought about The Who. But Haden brings them back to a sort of uncanny afterlife. Her multi-tracked singing replicates the album in extreme, exquisite detail, as she sings not only Daltrey’s vocals, but Townshend’s guitar lines, Entwhistle’s bass, and even sometimes the swish and bang of Moon’s drums. (I don’t think she reproduces every instrumental line from the album, but she does enough to create a rich texture reminiscent of the original).
Nonetheless (or, rather, precisely because of this extreme fidelity), Petra Haden’s album does not sound much like the actual Who. The reason is textural — it has to do both with the high pitch of her voice (especially effective for an album that is so anguished over questions about manhood), and with the overall oddness of hearing those killer guitar lines turned into a kind of maniacally determined, but nonetheless gentle, scat singing (Haden is a genius at miming diverse instrumental timbres with her voice; but by ‘miming’ I mean that she somehow suggests these timbres in ways that are instantly recognizable, but without literally reproducing them). As a result, the furious amphetamine rush of The Who comes out sounding hauntingly lyrical. Or more precisely, the lyricism that was always at least in the background of Townshend’s songwriting is foregrounded in Haden’s rendition. The rage and pain and depression aren’t washed away, exactly, but rather sublimated — in both the psychoanalytic sense and in the sense of being ‘made sublime’ — and distanced through a sort of bright and blurry haze. I am thinking of the way in which — at least in my experience — antidepressant medication doesn’t take the pain and despondency away, but situates those feelings at a distance from which they don’t seem quite so overwhelming or impossible to deal with. You don’t become mindlessly happy, or happy at all in fact, but you are better able to live with your unhappiness. You don’t lose your (rare) moments of exhilaration, either; but those moments, as well, are put into a kind of perspective. As a middle aged person, hopefully without too much of that odious boomer nostalgia, I can’t at all identify with the adolescent angst (probably foreign to today’s adolescents) that the music of The Who (especially early) was straining to express; but Haden’s reiteration gives me something that I probably would be unable to get at this point from the original: a deep aesthetic appreciation of the music’s precisely hewn beauty. I like to listen to this album — as would never be the case with The Who themselves — just before going to bed; not that it is in the least soporific (it isn’t), but because it translates the music’s conflict (without pretending to resolve it) to a kind of other plane, or other scene.
I think this is what Deleuze calls “counter-effectuation”: “to be the mime of what effectively occurs, to double the actualisation with a counter actualisation, the identification with a distance, like the true actor or dancer, is to give to the truth of the event the only chance of not being confused with its inevitable actualisation.” The turmoil is not resolved, not pacified, not swept under the rug, but repeated in a new register, and in such a way that it becomes the double of itself; and that space between the event and its “counter-effectuated” double — not really even a space, but more like a membrane, or like the two sides of an infinitely thin piece of paper — is where creativity happens, where life finds the resources to continue even in the face of catastrophe.
Does this seem too heavy a burden to put on a 40-minute album that might more likely be described (as the album publicity notes describe it) as “a technical tour de force that highlights The Who’s own achievement”? But it isn’t heavy: that’s precisely the point. Petra Haden’s “The Who Sell Out” is a kind of magic that brings the dead back to life, neither as vampires and zombies, nor as venerated saints, but in a sort of mirroring that allows the discarnate ghosts to, finally, and from the immense distance that separates death from life, resemble themselves.