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Todd Rundgren: Musician On the Edge
Todd Rundgren is a name synonymous with being both prolific as well as largely unheard of. His styles range from fluffy pop melodies to dark, pessimistic heavy metal. Over the years he's seemed a largely inconsistent mass of multiple personalities, each one appearing in each album he's produced since the seventies. It's rare to find an artist who has been able to call himself a seasoned blues musician at eighteen and still be producing music passionately into his sixties.
I got into his music in high school, when songs like “Real Man”, off his Initiation LP, made me feel like I'd found an artist who really knew how to speak to my fifteen-year-old confused self. While most my age were into heavy metal, rap, I needed music that communicated with the alienated loner, and while I loved modern electronic music like Trance and House at the time, Rundgren's music gave me a comfort and a longing for the 70s I hadn't had since I was a kid. I first heard his music when the song “Can We Still Be Friends” played at the end of Dumb and Dumber (for which Rundgren composed the entire score) and I was part of the “Todd is Godd” crew for a while after. Not only was I encapsulated by his tunes, but also his vocals; he has one of my favorite male singing voices and I envy him for it, almost as much as I envy him for his love life: The dude was with Liv Tyler's mom!
Rundgren got his start in the music scene as a teen in Philadelphia, along with other future famous artists like both members of Hall & Oates (Daryl Hall and Rundgren have performed together recently). His most famous album, the one which rose to the top of the charts, was 1972's Something/Anything?, an album for the most part comprised of pop songs and love ballads. While most of his work has come from a much more cynical place--or at the very least psychedelic experimentation--this album is, no less, a great window into Rundgren's sound. Some hints of Rundgren's departure into more branches of music can be heard in Something/Anything? (Todd's stated before that his venture into the realm of drugs like marijuana and ritalin helped him musically, and supposedly helped him write the famous “I Saw The Light” in about twenty minutes) and though this was his third LP and the one that skyrocketed him to international stardom for a time, he refused to bow to any specific audience and genre, and that became clear in the oftentimes amazing and controversial albums he managed to produce since.
As for Rundgren's first two albums, 1971's Runt and Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren , the music on there isn't particularly too far from what would eventually surface, in terms of mellow pop ballads. I love the song “Believe In Me” on Runt and think it is a nice, simple love song, and I like it principally for its tune. And of course who in the world hasn't heard “We Gotta Get You A Woman”? And even still, Runt predicted Todd's more experimental dives. His time in the band Nazz in the late sixties, before his solo career, was also a psychedelic one, so anyone knowing Rundgren's musical history knows he comes from a place that is more abstract and beautiful than his time in the pop realm.
Sure, I like Something/Anything? for the tunes on there, but they can get a little flowery for my taste (the album cover art really lets you know what you're getting into). But A Wizard, A True Star, released in '73, really encapsulated what Todd was about to become, stepping away from his pop persona and becoming a trippy, intelligent rock musician. This is probably my favorite Rundgren album now, next to Todd and Initiation. The album starts with the enigmatic opening acid-trip vacuum “International Feel”, a short introduction into the surreal adventure on which this album takes you, and which also recurs midway through the album as a sort of continuation called “Le Feel Internacionale”. The rest of the first fourth of the album consists of one-minute musical medleys and sound experiments, some of which I don't particularly like (“Dogfight Giggle” being one of the ones I can't really listen to), but then the album transcends into more than shorts with tracks like “Zen Archer” and my two personal favorites off the album, “When The Shit Hits The Fan - Sunset Blvd” and “Sometimes I Don't Know What To Feel”, both of which show Todd's more bitter, aggressive side here, while still retaining his charm and intelligence in both melody and lyrics. And you can't forget the showtune-reminiscient “Hungry For Love” or the one hit off the album reminding us of his Something/Anything? days, “Just One Victory”.
Todd became notorious for his focus on the vinyl album as a creative means of making music, looking at it as a canvas that can be infused with auditory art that is both connected and disjointed. Todd definitely knew how to intertwine songs and instrumentals together, even if their themes and tones seem totally disconnected.
A lot of A Wizard may seem like Todd's acid-induced musical adventure (and of course his use of psychedelics did play a part in his inspiration) but he still manages to keep his music from slipping into the mainstream while still making it genuine and good, for the most part. His next album in 1974, Todd, however, is looked at with very different eyes by those who've heard it, fans or not. Some love every inch of it, some enjoy most of it or very little, or some simply hate it and view it as one more of Todd's self-indulgent attempts to examine his own mind. In any case, “I Think You Know”--the song coming right after yet another strange, disorienting opening intro--stands as my favorite on this album, if just for its relaxing (I hate to use the word “psychedelic” yet again in this article) atmosphere and melody. “A Dream Goes On Forever” is the hit off this album, which also hints back to his pop star, pre-prog rock glory days. My other three favorite songs on this album are actually in perfect sequence, starting off with the catchy instrumental “Sidewalk Cafe”, which launches directly into “Izzat Love” (whose opening became the sample for Neon Indian's "Deadbeat Summer" more recently) and then the ironic contrast of “Heavy Metal Kids” comes along with, literally, the scratch of a record. There is such a perfect (and relatable) emotional shift within just these three tracks and I can never tire of hearing this little section of the album over and over together. “Don't You Ever Learn” toward the end of the album and “The Last Ride” also sit relatively well with me, especially the former. However, not every track is a hit with me, either, “Drunken Blue Rooster” and “In And Out The Chakras We Go” being a little difficult to digest until you get used to them.
After his solo career, Todd decided pursuing a solo career entirely wouldn't allow him the total freedom to compose songs that a band would have an easier time doing, and so he put together a group in the seventies called Utopia, which lasted until the mid-eighties. The band enjoyed a decent run and produced some hits on its own.
I won't cover all of Todd's albums, not only because there are so many, but also because while there are songs I like on most of them, Initiation and one of his most recent albums, 2004's Liars, are my tops after Something, A Wizard and Todd. Initiation is an incredible exploration of religion, mostly of Eastern philosophies and Theosophy. “Real Man” starts this LP off, a pop song of the kind that will not be heard for the rest of the album, and remains one of my favorites of Todd's, about what it means to be a real man even if people don't see it. I think this album is probably one of the most cathartic listening experiences I've ever gone through, with songs like “Initiation” and especially “Eastern Intrigue” bringing out the ridiculousness of the exclusion that occurs with most religions, and how they can all be united. But the song that grabs me most is “Fair Warning”, what's been called Todd's rap song, an eight-minute “warning” about essentially letting go of the bullshit that is laziness and dependence on anything or anyone, and taking charge of your own actions in keeping the world from being destroyed. The idea of it may sound like Todd's equivalent to “We Are The World”, but it's a much better, more intellectual, mellow and challenging song than that, I can assure you. The album's end is a four-part electronic symphony called “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire” that changes emotions and instrumentation almost constantly with every track, each one growing longer and flowing into one another (basically, it's about a thirty-minute composition), and while I love the first two pieces, “Intro-Prana” and “The Fire Of Mind Or Solar Fire”, the rest can be more difficult to follow and stomach, unless you're under the influence of some good hallucinogens, I'm betting.
Liars is one of Todd's latest albums, and was noticeably produced completely through a single electronic program, Propellerhead's Reason 4. The album covers exactly what the title does, the lies and sheen of falsities we allow ourselves to believe as truths (like the Easter bunny, as the cover suggests). A lot of this album may seem a little cheesy in composition, but the lyrics are fresh and truly thought-provoking. “Happy Anniversary” really brings out effectively the stereotypes spread about men by women and women by men right out in the open: Men are stupid; women are evil. The first song, “Truth” comes across as a fast-paced, semi-techno intro, giving Todd a whole new sound, not to mention his voice is notably lower (yet totally fitting) than it was in his youth. “Soul Brother” is about the death of soul in music today, with a tune I don't hold too close to me, though. “Stood Up” is a great song, though, one of my favs on this LP, taking on the tone of a kid's tune almost, and yet tells about the dangers of standing up too fast when you're not ready to (most politicians). One of my favorite lines: “It's so easy to be smart, but it's a struggle to be wise”. Of course the song also represents--to me at least--the issues of growing up and trying to be the best and finding disappointment. “Flaw” is another song that tops in this, basically about the one “fatal flaw” of a man's woman being that she's “a lyin' ass motherfucker”. A lot of people don't like Todd's use of swearing in this (as he's not known for it), but I think it works fine; people are too fucking sensitive sometimes. “Past” and “Future” are two really chill songs that put me in a good mood even if the lyrics, like on most songs on this album, ironically contradict the feel-good tunes. "Wondering" and "Afterlife" are two very good tunes to add to an already contemplative album. “God Said” is definitely one of the best songs about religion and faith I've ever heard and pretty much illustrates how desperate faith and need to hear God keeps you from moving forward and can almost always lead to a selfish life of disappointment and frustration.
Todd's career spans over decades and refuses to come to a halt. He's an artist who's garnered great praise from loyal listeners and harsh criticism from everyone else. He's pretty much the definition of a cult musician, and I can safely say I love his music not only for the tunes but also for the personal emotional connection and musical articulation of my own thoughts and concerns. He's not a musician for everyone, but he's certainly been seen as the deep thinker's musician and the musician's musician, an important part of musical history who deserves attention, which is more than I can say for many of the performers who've risen to popularity simply due to broad songs, usually about the most trivial and boring of life's experiences. And the most amazing thing is, he hasn't come close to stopping not only creating and performing, but also influencing.