Todd Rundgren: State

Todd Rundgren
Esoteric Antenna / Cherry Red

There are a small handful of people who consider Todd Rundgren to be God. Or Godd, if you prefer. There’s a good reason: 1972’s epic Something/Anything?, one of pop rock’s most enduring and perfect double albums. It’s a record (or records, plural) where Rundgren proves, for once and for all, that he was a visionary talent, and quite capably, too, by playing every instrument on three out of the four sides, all of which are pure music nirvana with hardly any filler anywhere in sight. It pains me to learn, though, that my colleagues here at PopMatters, Mendelsohn and Klinger of Counterbalance, won’t be talking about this album for quite a few years because the record is placed at No. 267 on that great list of acclaimed albums that they’ve taken it upon themselves to go through. (And they’re currently in the upper 100s, working their way down.) Something/Anything? is an outstanding record, one of my personal desert island discs, and it should be ranked a lot higher on that list just based on pure songwriting alone, in my estimation. Heck, Rolling Stone ranks it at a slightly more apt No. 173 on their list of the Top 500 greatest albums of all time from 2003, though, in a fair world, it’d easily crack the Top 100, at least, if I were writing that list. However, there’s a reason Something/Anything? isn’t as revered as it should be, and it’s probably a telling one.

You see, critics likely don’t like to give Todd Rundgren or his 1972 opus proper due because, beginning with its follow-up, 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star, an album Rundgren has gone on record as stating was conceived while he was on LSD (and it sure sounds like it), he began a quick descent into career suicide by releasing, either by himself or through his prog rock side-project Utopia, impenetrably self-indulgent albums with only a handful of decent moments, if there were any at all. In fact, if you make it through Utopia’s 30-minute swampy epic “The Ikon” from their debut 1974 album without running for the hills or covering your ears, a young, multi-coloured haired Todd Rundgren will personally appear before your hi-fi unit to give you a hit from his bong. (OK, so that may be truthiness, but you pretty much need drugs to really appreciate some of those early Utopia records.) It only isn’t until you get to side two of Rundgren’s 1976 solo record Faithful (as side one is a pretty unremarkable stab at updating some timeless songs by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, and the ilk) and 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow that you get anything approaching quality control yet again. And from there, Rundgren’s output is rather patchy, and by the time you get into his post-1980s work, you’re entering what has been described to me by another fan as “for completists only” territory. (I own everything Rundgren has made, solo or otherwise, mostly on used vinyl up to 1989’s Nearly Human, save for the final Utopia record, and haven’t really tiptoed past that point for the very reason of entering the terrain of dubious quality: early Utopia was enough for me, thanks.) So, to some, Todd is rather Odd, which is apt as Rundgren has a pretty insular sense of wacky humour, one whose side rears its head in quirky novelty songs such as “Bang the Drum All Day”, that you’ll either find endearing or annoying, or some combination of both.

Well, 2013 is a special year for Rundgren. It sees him reach the golden milestone of 65 years of age, so, yes, he is going to be a senior citizen at last. However, if you were to listen to his 24th and latest solo album, State, you wouldn’t know it. Rundgren is not going gently into that good night, and, as such, State is an album that fuses elements of his trademark rock and r ‘n’ b sound together with modern-day electronica. In fact, Rundgren has stated in interviews that as part of his “research” into making this album, he was listening to the likes of Skrillex, Frank Ocean and (believe it or not) Bon Iver, all of whose influences don’t extend into State as much as its maker would like them to, sadly. Rundgren has also said in an interview that I read online somewhere that State is a record filled with cautionary tales. For instance, opening track “Imagination” is about the lack of thereof in some people’s lives.

Unfortunately, State is an album that is cautionary only in how it shows that Todd Rundgren’s ego still sometimes gets the best of him, and is rather lacklustre and surprisingly dated, for all of the intent behind it to make it an up-to-the-moment sounding record. In fact, there’s not a huge difference in sound between State and something like 1981’s Healing and, in fact, we even get a song here about Rundgren’s faith and belief in some higher or greater power (“Something from Nothing”), which, again, seems pulled from the thematic of Healing. Thus, Rundgren is basically up to his old tricks in self-indulgence and, not only that, is profoundly repeating himself with State, despite some good intentions. Heck, when you consider that there are two songs here named “Ping Me” and “Angry Bird” [sic], it’s almost as though Todd Rundgren is crying out for modern-day “Heavy Metal Kids” to take him seriously, despite the fact that the term “ping me” seems so, um, 2007. (That was the year that I first encountered the use of the term in a professional setting, at least. Your encountering of the term may date much further back than that.)

I could rail on about State and the cheesy use of metal shredding guitar, arena rock ambition, embarrassing from-the-pulpit finger-wagging (“Party Liquor” appears to be a warning about what happens when you get hammered, which is quaint coming from someone old enough to be a grandpa) and chintzy keyboards that sound as though Rundgren was sampling his own output that’s 30 or 40 years old by now, but there are a few things about State that work and do so quite well. The song “Smoke”, for example, is an astounding and outstanding Todd Rundgren-ized take on ’80s house music, and renders so closely to the sound of classic post-disco dance music that you have to admire the fact that, for once on this disc (and only by mid-album, alas), Rundgren gets something so right and perfect. This is hardly trailblazing stuff, except by Rundgren standards, but it shows that he can easily appropriate other sounds and genres and import them into his own oeuvre quite convincingly. “Something from Nothing” is also a serviceable ballad with lovely female vocals, in spite of the fact that it does hue rather closely to sounding more Wang Chung than Frank Ocean. And I perversely enjoy “Angry Bird” (as in, “She’s an … “) and “Sir Reality” (as in, “surreality”; get it?). This is despite the fact that both songs are kind of silly in their own way, at least lyrically in the former and somewhat musically in the latter.

Still, this record could be easily summarized by some lyrics from “Imagination”: “I am what I am,” sings Rundgren, “That’s all I am, I tell myself.” He goes further: “I have no demands, I don’t have a plan / To sell myself.” That’s essentially the problem with Rundgren’s career since 1973 or so. He’s got the Robert Pollard Problem of Lack of Self-Restraint: everything that Rundgren releases is, as its creator believes, worthy of seeing the light of day, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to proper marketing. Unfortunately, there will be people out there who will go out and buy the record, no matter what the quality, because they blindly believe that everything Rundgren has released is easily on par with Something/Anything?, if not in song quality, then in seriousness of intent behind it. So nothing I write here is going to have an impact on Rundgren’s album sales: you’re either a fan, and you’re buying this regardless, or you’re saying to yourself, Todd Who? (As I imagine most people my age – I’m 37 – and younger are.) So State is just another Todd Rundgren album, for better or worse, and as far as his records go, it’s “the same old situation”, to grab another snatch of lyric from “Imagination”.

That may be fine and dandy, and fans will likely be satisfied with the results here, people who are old enough that if Rundgren had delivered an album of spot-on Skrillex imitations, they may have well suffered a heart attack. But for people like me who trolled through his early to mid-period discography looking for more transcendent gems like “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me”, there’s not much to truly enjoy in a profound manner. Basically, the best thing that can be said about State is that it may make you want to reach out and grab your copy of Something/Anything? just to hear it all over again as a reminder of how good Todd Rundgren can really be. Listening to Something/Anything? once more may also have another utility: taking the stale aftertaste that something as bitter as State might have, as Rundgren puts it in a rather silly manner on this disc, “In My Mouth”.

RATING 4 / 10