Pete Townshend: All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Pete Townshend's All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes has plenty going against it before the music even begins: the horrendous album title, which would be more offensive if it weren't so ridiculous; the abominable cover photo depicting Townshend as far too German-arty; and the presence of a song titled "Face Dances Part Two," alluding to the Who's worst album. Throw in an understanding that its aesthetic reveals Townshend's pride in his Poet and Artiste badge, and it's understandable if you're turned off before the needle lands.
At the time of its release, Robert Christgau wrote: "Townshend has somehow managed to conceive, record, and release a confessional song suite the pretentiousness of which could barely be imagined by an acid-damaged Bard drama major. That is, it's pretentious at an unprecedented level of difficulty—you have to pay years of dues before you can twist such long words into such unlikely rhymes and images and marshal arrangements of such intricate meaninglessness."
Christgau isn't far off the mark. Townshend's never shied from pretentiousness, and in some ways, this album marks the pinnacle of that attitude. Even the disc's best songs, "The Sea Refuses No River" and "Slit Skirts," overstate their cases with music that announces their own importance, the former by making a harmonica portentous and the latter primarily through a this-is-important piano run. Dictionary words pop up more often than you'd expect (including German psychology's "selbstdarstellung"), and some metaphors twist to nearly incomprehensible degrees ("The Sea," again).
Still, labeling the album as pretentious says more about one's restrictions on pop than about an individual musician's aspirations. By the time of the album's 1982 release, rock had long since surpassed being three-minute jaunts about adolescence, frustration, love, or all three. On Chinese Eyes Townshend chooses to focus on more intellectualized and mature topics (not that “intellectual” equals “mature”). In doing so, he increases song length noticeably, but usually sticks to a verse-chorus form. He hints at the theatrical sound of his later solo efforts, but he builds his swells around guitars and keyboards, shunning more problematic orchestral arrangements. Is it ostentatious? A little, but, vocabulary words aside, the disc comfortably mixes experiment and tradition. The album might at times be convoluted or over-thought, but have you ever listened to a Townshend interview?
Fortunately, the disc remains affecting and compelling. After the surprisingly meditative "Stop Hurting People," "The Sea Refuses No River" provides Townshend's most developed metaphors for God's love. A grace narrative, the song posits God as the ocean, with the sea's unending reception of the rivers that run to it a parallel of God's acceptance of us, whether we're "broken," "polluted," or even "sulfurous." The track builds a better mood of grace than it explains, with controlled dynamics and smart orchestration. Lines like "The sea refuses no river / Remember that when the beggar buys a round" carry more weight than literal content would suggest.
That weight comes from Townshend's earnestness. Sometimes joking or inconsistent, he still delivers each idea sincerely, even if he's rarely slave to Emerson's hobgoblin. The importance instilled in such lines doesn't lead to pretension, because it actually does matter (if it doesn't, you can change the record). The ideas not only matter, they sustain and build. "Somebody Saved Me," a Who cast-off, returns to the idea of grace—"All I know is I've been making it / And there've been times I didn't deserve to"—even while responding to the loss in the preceding traditional "North Country Girl," which shifts the melody but stays simple in performance. The mildly synthetic sound dates it as an '80s track, yet it remains a folk number.
"Exquisitely Bored” and "Uniforms (Corp d'Espirt)" both consider the superficial life while "Communication" centers these thoughts with the breakdown of human conversation. "Communication" offers a tricky rhythmic pattern and "Exquisitely Bored" touches on the stage, but the songs stick to a basic New Wave arrangement. While their lyrics poke at life's weak spots, each of these tracks remain in the shadow of the grace of "The Sea Refuses No River." While not a concept album by any stretch, Chinese Eyes provides a thematically cohesive set of songs.
It wraps up with "Slit Skirts," a song ostensibly about romance and sex that manages to hit deep while pretending to hit low. The track feints at generosity even as it nears self-indulgence (after rejecting glamorized wallowing with a brisk "I don't know why I thought I should have some kind of divine right to the blues"), but it always faces the condition of human alienation, a theme even more potent closing an album centered on distance and overshadowed by grace. When Townshend sings, "Once she walked with untamed lovers' face between her legs / Now he's cooled and stifled, and it's she who has to beg," he couldn't be more carnal, but there's an existential longing lacking from similar references in songs like "You Better You Bet." When he simplifies the whole situation in a single line—"I know that when she thinks of me, she thinks of me as 'Him'"—he hits hard and personally.
Despite its groove, "Slit Skirts" ends the album on a lost note, but it reminds us of the opening track's plea for understanding and reunion. Chinese Eyes doesn't have many light moments, but there's no interest in that unbearable condition of being. Townshend goes for big concerns, whether they play out in fashion, movies, or conversation. While the music occasionally springs loose, it presents a formally tight meditation on challenging topics. The resulting album ends up being more cohesive than it has any right to be, and far more natural than it appears.