There was a time back in 1974 when Todd Rundgren, in concert while fronting the large, prog version of his band Utopia (which featured three keyboard players) would sneak a bit of sonic candy into the sprawling, knotty 30+-minute epic entitled “The Ikon.”
The ambitious piece of music, comprised of several musical suites was, he seemed to sense, a lot for an audience to absorb — especially when many in that audience had no doubt purchased tickets to hear feel-good hits like “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It's Me.” So in the middle of “The Ikon,” in the midst of the musical chaos, Rundgren would slip in one chorus from his very first hit, 1970’s “We Gotta Get You a Woman.” Then, BAM, it was right back to the epic prog excursion. I was never sure if that was just an inside joke, or if Todd was throwing a genuine bone to the fans for sticking with him for musical thick and thin, short and long.
Regardless, I had a similar sensation when listening to much of his 2013 album, a 10-song collection of electronic dance music entitled State, Rundgren's 24th solo studio album.
What made me flash back to the mid 70s is that woven into many of the challenging new songs are occasional blasts of vintage Todd; that is to say, a certain chord structure or cascade of swirling background vocals that feel as though they may have snuck out of a Hermit of Mink Hollow session. Then, BAM, back to the heavy grooves and many majestic musical tapestries. While obviously far more natural and less deliberate than the 1974 example, it is refreshing to hear Rundgren touch upon his past styles a bit, not so much for the sake of nostalgia, but because it reminds one just how much musical ground this guy has covered. And continues to cover.
Clearly, Rundgren is quite taken with the colors, flavors and tempos of dance music. State feels like a cousin to 2011's [RE]Production, which saw Rundgren reimagining many songs he produced for other artists over the years in a similar electronic style. State takes the concept into much deeper water.
Going all the way back to Rundgren's breakthrough, the much lauded double album Something/Anything? from 1972, he has demonstrated an interest and sometimes fascination with electronic sounds. Albums such as that one, 1973's A Wizard, A True Star, 1974's Todd all the way up to modern day have seen Rundgren dabble in and even flat out embrace the concept of electronic music.
Things get started with “Imagination,” a brooding, dark meander that sets a deeply electronic tone for the rest of the record. Rundgren's heavily filtered voice is remarkably strong behind the layers of effects. In fact, throughout the record, his voice nimbly and gracefully climbs many mountains and traverses many musical valleys — no small feat from a man approaching his 65th birthday. This creates somewhat of a conflict in my view, if only by design. That is to say, electronic music has a clinical coldness to it by definition. Rundgren's voice is so ethereal and soulful, it almost feels like it would be more at home against the backdrop of more traditional rock and pop structures.
But this is Todd Rundgren, who dances to his own tune whether it's singing a torch ballad or a spacey, syncopated exploration like “Imagination.” So what I (or you) say or think affects nothing. As always, he's making the music that he feels like making, as dedicated artists do, without factoring in any sort of end-user opinion or expectation. And I think he is to be applauded for that. It’s just become too rare that an artist follows a pure muse, especially down risky and unpredictable paths like this.
“Imagination” dovetails into “Serious,” which might remind Rundgren aficionados of an early 90s vamp called “Love Science.” Funky, furious and bouncy, it's peppered with lots of throbbing and pulsating beats that are the foundation of several other songs included here.
Note to listener: Danceable grooves are in, guitar solos and traditional song structures are out.
The sort of hypnotic, thumping industrial rhythms that Rundgren leans on so heavily seem to work in varying degrees. At times they feel fresh and imaginative, while other moments seem steeped in trying to imitate various forms of ambient, techno, trance, dub step and other elements that comprise the broad electronic dance music playing field.
But he is clearly into all of this with both feet, and one only hopes he plans to present this in some sort of live/dance setting. Washes of demonic sounding synthesizers and pre-programmed, machine gun drum tracks may work at Coachella or any other dark field with a DJ and lots of multicolored glow sticks. But in your car or home, it's a little different. It makes me wonder if Rundgren actually created these songs with a live DJ experience in mind for his upcoming State tour (as he did to some degree while touring in the early 1990s during one of his other forays into electronica and also rap). This is dance music, after all, which means it comes to full life when people are moving and grooving to it.
For all the musical density and staggered rhythms, that doesn’t mean there isn't any gentle touch or dependable Rundgren melodic magic. There is, on several of the songs. This is where Rundgren's voice becomes key. There is almost no guitar or any other human instrumentation on State so his voice represents the only real flesh and blood on the album.
And what flesh and blood it is.
His feathery vocals on songs like “In My Mouth” and “Something From Nothing” (which features a duet with Rachel Haden) reveal the soul and character of a singer whose voice seems to gaining, not losing strength and ability. “In My Mouth” in particular feels like an outtake from 1981’s Healing, which, not coincidentally also featured lots of densely constructed, heavily synthesized musical layers.
“Party Liquor” is one of the aforementioned songs that incorporates little musical shards of melody that can only be termed “Rundgren-esque” in that they are sweeping, sweet and indescribably catchy. They come and go quickly though, with matters at-hand always returning to relentless beats, beat and more beats, spiked with plenty of other aural bursts and shrieks. It's a lot of fun at times. But it's also a bit exhausting and occasionally repetitive (which I will admit, may just be me as I do not listen to much electronic dance music).
In my opinion, Rundgren finds the greatest balance on the final track, “Sir Reality.” Lyrically, he recites a list of odd adages against a lush and beautiful musical landscape featuring one of his trademark wandering, interstellar guitar solos — “No one really dies,” “Money brings you joy,” “Girls are girls and boys are boys,” “The ocean has no salt,” “Knowledge comes for free.” Strange mantras. But woven together, they all work beautifully. The minimal and mysterious backing track, with simple and building seductive beat, seems the perfect container for this exquisite Rundgren vocal, which reaches, pleads and claws like the best Rundgren vocals often do — the plaintive voice of a curious everyman, crying across the cosmos for some piece of understanding. It is one of the best Rundgren performances I have heard in years — a standout.
Rundgren has clearly found a groove, many grooves in fact, that he obviously feels comfortable with. It’s just him in his Hawaiian studio, as his last few solo efforts have been (and how many of his early solo records were recorded — alone). Call him the Hermit of the Na Pali coast.
Listeners, as they have with Todd Rundgren, will no doubt debate over and wonder about the decision to make an album like this. That’s when it helps to remember, once more, that Todd Rundgren does not make the record he thinks will be a big hit will or please fans or critics or anyone else. He makes the record that he hears in his head at that moment, and so how it is received is something I’d guess he has little to no concern with. This has never been an artist that kowtows.
State is uncompromising, unexpected, and committed to its own creative cause.
It is also daring, passionate and stubbornly original. Ultimately, it is rewarding. Very much so. In short, it is a typical Todd Rundgren album.
~ Chris Epting