Todd Rundgren’s Blissfully Altered State
Besides Neil Young, the only other hit-making solo artist to purposely revel in repeated mainstream career sabotage has arguably been Todd Rundgren. Both artists have proven themselves capable of creating hook-laden, melodic rock of the highest order. But they also share a hunger for blazing new trails through the musical jungle, usually leaving a lot of shredded foliage in their path. And like Young with with his early ’80s musical departures as well as recent work with Daniel Lanois, Rundgren continues to venture away from commercial expectations in the second decade of the new millennium with his latest album, State.
Eschewing any sonic resemblance to some of his more commercial output of yore, Rundgren’s latest offer is similar production-wise to his last solo album [re]Production (2011) and also harkens back at times to Utopia’s most self-indulgent forays – even if in spirit and abandon alone. Many successful techno/synth-pop artists of the past thirty years have credited Rundgren with inspiring their creative endeavours. So it’s no surprise that on State, the listener experiences a consistent feeling of familiarity; Rundgren is turning the work of his popular protégés inside out.
With the use of some basic keyboard sounds, sequenced drums, guitars, and vocals, Rundgren manages to splatter a large, colourful canvas in a surprisingly coherent way. And like any sprawling piece of work in height and stature, one must consider it both at a distance and up close. Such is the way I’ve been digesting State for the past week or so as I’ve gone about my business. Admittedly I was expecting a standard “classic rock” production from Rundgren this time around, with melodic tunes that stand up proudly yet fall short of his commercial peak periods. After all, this is the kind of album that many of his contemporaries have been making. It’s typically what veteran singer/songwriters do: they put out new material that doesn’t have a prayer competing on the same level of greatness as their own creative peak output. And we know the futility of competing with oneself. Self-parody is only one rung further down on that ladder. To my relief, what came out of my headphones as I strolled around a local wilderness trail for my first iPod listen to State was nothing resembling rote songwriting or parody in performance. And as I listened again in the car, and again drunk in bed after a club gig, and again while cleaning up the house, I began to realize that it had been a long time since an album crept up on me.
State is a slow aural digestion that implores the listener to experience it as whole. Even so, I’ve already found myself scrolling back repeatedly to one particular song, “Serious” – an interesting sonic mixture of Pet Shop Boys ambience, Peter Gabriel grooves, and (oddly enough) Flaming Pie-era McCartney vocals. This tune unveils a dramatic and forceful arrangement, utilizing a sudden volume dip then syncopated synth crescendo toward the middle that catches the listener by surprise. Underneath the synths and sequenced beats you can hear some nifty Crybaby wah-wah guitar fills, displaying Rundgren’s persistent penchant for a good rock riff. In many ways, the guitar work on this album serves as a focal point or compass by which one can navigate back to more commercial Rundgren territory. It’s a welcome piece of the mix (especially for casual fans getting their feet wet), and it is used tastefully.
“Something In My Mouth” is reminiscent of Nightfly-era Donald Fagan, although even more suggestive lyrically than Fagan is willing to be with his perversions. It’s unsettling how romantic Rundgren’s vocal sounds on this tune. The listener is forced to assume he’s being satirical, sadistic, or a blend of both.
On “Ping Me,” Rundgren somehow turns an internet reference into a relationship metaphor without coming across as trying too hard. The verses are conventional romance, and the choruses complete contrariness. Once again, it’s odd but somehow enticing. He continues this wordplay with “Angry Bird,” spinning a relationship yarn out of a video game concept. It has a dissonant two-chord structure that works well with the fragmented nature of the verses.
This is experimental music, to be sure. But with a creative craftsman at the helm, the melodies can get very sweet – which nicely offsets the sometimes abrasive programming. On “Smoke,” Rundgren lyrically and melodically borders on Roxy Music romanticism. In fact, a lot of this record can be tied to early British synth-driven albums. Maybe it is because early forms of this style retained melodic structure and pop arrangements. This was before the advent of the “Rave,” when as a recording artist you needed more than Ecstasy to keep a packed nightclub’s attention. Other songs on State, such as “Imagination” and “Party Liquor” continue in this excitable, yet focused production and arrangement style.
I will not attest to being a fan of techno. But I am a fan of craftsmanship and great songwriting, no matter the form. Rundgren has proven himself in this regard time and again, both as artist and producer. State succeeds in spite of the synth orgy, not because of it. For the casual Rundgren listener who buys his latest album expecting a ride in a nostalgic Philly Soul time machine, this may be a disappointing shock. However, for Rundgren fanatics it’s just business as (un)usual.
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