The Who are rightly hailed as experts in the realm of concept albums, or “rock operas” as they were called once upon a time. Tommy and Quadrophenia might have been intended by Pete Townshend to be mixed media experiences, but they are ultimately best enjoyed with a phonograph and a good set of headphones, heard from start to finish. From among those albums, The Who were able to create individual songs, like “Love, Reign O’er Me” as just one of many superb examples, that stand apart and don’t need any larger context to shine.
“Love, Reign O’er Me” closes out Quadrophenia, which Townshend used as a way of telling one put-upon kid’s story while also summarizing the personalities within his band. He explained in the liner notes to the album how the song, one final plea for deliverance by the album’s protagonist Jimmy, sprung partially from the teachings of the spiritualist Meher Baba: “It refers to Meher Baba’s one time comment that rain was a blessing from God; that thunder was God’s Voice. It’s another plea to drown, only this time in the rain. Jimmy goes through a suicide crisis. He surrenders to the inevitable, and you know, you know, when it’s over and he goes back to town he’ll be going through the same s–t, being in the same terrible family situation and so on, but he’s moved up a level. He’s weak still, but there’s a strength in that weakness. He’s in danger of maturing.”
You don’t need to know any of that to drink in the song’s majestic catharsis. The drama conjured up by the music is potent. Townshend’s tone-setting synths eventually give way to Keith Moon’s peppery drums and John Entwistle’s thudding bass. In the breaks, Townshend churns out some stinging lead guitar. As a whole, “Love, Reign O’er Me” exemplifies the band’s ability to combine tough and tender.
Then there’s Roger Daltrey’s vocal, which is one for the ages. Of course, his shouts of “Love!” at the top of every chorus grab the spotlight. But you can also hear how the character has been humbled by life in the verses, as well as his wiry resilience in the bridge. You could argue that Daltrey could have wordlessly emoted the melody and the message still would have come across.
Nonetheless, Townshend is on top of his game with the lyrics as well. His similes and metaphors for the rain convey both the sexual (“Like the sweat of lovers laying in the fields”) and the spiritual (“That makes you yearn to the sky”.) The chance to be redeemed by “the rain/ That falls like tears from on high” is so tempting for this wounded character that the screams from Daltrey for love to “reign o’er” him are understandable.
In the bridge, the healing precipitation is replaced by the “dry and dusty road” on which the narrator is currently trudging. By contrast to his soothing, cosmic utterances in the verses, Jimmy’s earthly desperation creeps through in this part of the song: “I can’t sleep and I lay and I think/ The night is hot and black as ink/ Oh God, I need a drink of cool, cool rain.”
The song ends with a few more Daltrey bellows to the heavens and Moon smashing practically everything but the kitchen sink. If you’ve taken the whole journey through Quadrophenia to get to that point, the effect can be overwhelming. But even if only catch “Love, Reign O’er Me” in single form, Townshend’s writing and The Who’s unique alchemy still get the job done.