For years now, Todd Rundgren has been searching for the Truth. Be it musically, spiritually, or technologically, it’s hard to think of another artist who has had such a long-standing career seeking such enlightenment by doing it his way and leading the audience down relatively undiscovered paths. It’s the exact thing that Todd’s detractors have slammed him for over the years, but it’s also the very thing that has allowed him to continue along for so long.
He wasn’t content to be just another pop radio star when 1972’s Something/Anything? broke Rundgren into the mainstream. In the late ’60s with his band Nazz, he wasn’t content with doing the same old rock-and-roll, and instead pushed his band into more psychedelic pop (Nazz Nazz in ’69), even after that whole scene had seemingly switched back to more “authentic” rock when the Beatles had released The White Album and everyone once again followed suit. Todd Rundgren has always been about musical alchemy and what wonders can be derived from working with the studio and the latest in musical technologies.
He cut through his purely pop tendencies with a head full of acid for 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star that ranks as perhaps the best LSD trip on headphones for that decade. On that album he sang “Wait another year, Utopia is here.” Sure enough, in ’74, Rundgren introduced his first version of his side project Utopia. On that album, he began the long journey towards metaphysical and musical awareness. The side-long “The Ikon” was a prog-rock journey that eclipsed a lot of more popular prog bands because it retained a sense of humor and just downright rocked.
Other important stepping stones in Rundgren’s journey included Initiation, which was a relatively weak album, yet furthered his exploration of religious and spiritual harmony and 1981’s Healing which was about as commercially spiritual as it was going to get. The fans followed as usual, and the critics complained. But critics often do this to an artist that they can’t corral into a place that can be easily defined. They had a field day on Rundgren when he issued 1985’s A Cappella, his first seriously cutting edge album in regards to new technology in which every sound on the disc was his voice processed in various ways as to make it sound like organic instrumentation.
Then in the early part of the ’90s, Todd rechristened himself as TR-I and put forth his best technological breakthrough, No World Order. For once, technology caught up with Todd and Rundgren seemingly made the album that he had in him since 1971. But this time, both the fans and press came down on him. It was either “too cold”, or “too dark”, or Todd’s rapping wasn’t good, or whatever. For once, Rundgren went down an alley that perhaps finally alienated everyone. But to those who were into the club scene at the time, No World Order was perfect, and possibly introduced a whole new generation to Todd’s work.
In the years since, Rundgren has had varying degrees of success, as always. He started up his PatroNet site when the web was beginning to really take off in an effort to produce music when he wanted, as he wanted without worry of a record label’s schedule. This brings us to the present with Rundgren’s new album Liars, which is, once again, another chapter in Todd’s search for the Truth.
“All these songs are about a paucity of truth,” read Todd’s liner notes. “At first they may seem to be about other things, but that is just a reflection of how much dishonesty we have accepted in our daily lives.” Todd’s always been one to offer his attitudes and opinions in somewhat heavy-handed language. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s what made No World Order the kind of Big Statement that it was. But with Rundgren, nothing is ever just a simple song or a melody to tap your toes to; listening to his work has always required full body and mind participation. So it is with Liars.
Musically, this is one of those Todd albums where software plays a big part in the mix. His previous album, One Long Year mixed some rock guitars into the mix as on “I Hate My Frickin’ I.S.P.”, as well as acoustic strings into the remake of “Love of the Common Man” that seemed to continue the lines created on his With A Twist album that reformatted many of his classic tunes into a bossa nova style. But Liars seems reliant on Todd’s array of Apple computers and software and ends up sounding no so far removed from The Individualist, the album that followed No World Order.
It’s an interesting sound, and one that immediately hearkens back to the early ’90s house craze on the first song “Truth”. It’s a track that sounds like it was birthed around 1992 and held in a vault until now. People who aren’t familiar with that sort of music at that time might find this a new breath of fresh air. But it’s not, yet that doesn’t make it bad at all. It was actually quite nice to be taken back to those times and hear Rundgren apply his studio wizardry into a style of music that has since mutated a few hundred times since its conception.
“Men are stupid, women are evil” goes the tag line to “Happy Anniversary”, one of those psychosocial songs that Rundgren has been cranking out ever since Utopia’s Oops! Wrong Planet album in ’78. “You’d like to change it, but there ain’t no way / ‘Cause you’re a slave to your DNA” sings Rundgren. Yet, like on other songs of this stripe in his vast catalog, Todd merely produces the facts as they are and doesn’t offer a solution. Not at least within the song. Liars, like Healing or No World Order is one of those works that has to be experienced as a whole.
“Soul Brother” explores the vacuous modern music that is labeled as “Soul”. It’s actually probably the grooviest track on Liars as Rundgren does his old magic trick my making his technological music sound as organic as possible. Yet this has always been Rundgren’s best strength. Taking the new and shaping it into recognizable mile markers even as he’s pushing his boundaries ever forward.
Throughout Liars, Rundgren explores time (“Future” and “Past”), himself (“Stood Up” and “Wondering”), and of course spirituality and religious ties (“Mammon” and “God Said”). It’s as if Todd just decided to cram his entire life’s work and experiences and ideas into one album. And it works. It may seem obvious at the point to now ask why he just hadn’t done this before, yet it takes hearing this album to come to the same conclusion that Rundgren has as well: it takes years of experience.
Yet Rundgren doesn’t push any conclusions onto the listener. He lets his audience make up their minds through his social commentary and thereby perhaps opens up a new avenue to a possible solution that can lead to a better understanding and a direct finale. He’s always done this, even since his first solo album Runt when he sang “I’m in the Clique”. It’s this very ingredient that has kept Todd’s work so interesting for so long. The man might not always go down the path you want him to, or take the expected turn, but you’ll always learn something at the end of his latest album. And to be completely “unexpected” after this long is an accomplishment in itself. No one else but Todd Rundgren has been able to keep his audience on its toes for over 30 years. Here’s looking forward to the next step of the journey.