The question any reviewer must apply to a new Todd Rundgren album is simple: is this Good Todd or Bad Todd? The Todd who created pop masterpieces such as Nazz’s Open My Eyes and the solo albums Something/Anything? and Hermit Of Mink Hollow, or the Todd who has dabbled in everything from overblown prog rock, bossa nova, show tunes and rapping during his lengthy and erratic career.
Following on from the rather good Liars, a melodic pop album with politically charged lyrics that sank like a stone in the UK, Rundgren returns with his new magnum opus. The promise of a return to a stadium rock sound rings alarm bells: surely, what the world needs now is not another Utopia record?
Music fans can rest easy. What we have here is by no stretch of the imagination a masterpiece, but a solid, guitar heavy rock album that confirms Rundgren’s creative fires are still burning as he celebrates his 60th birthday. Thirteen short tracks banish any fears that Todd is indulging any of his more eccentric musical fetishes – hell, even the song titles are snappy one liners.
The album opens with a bang courtesy of the first single Mad. A pretty guitar flourish leads into a driving rock song with Rundgren screaming lines such as “This is more than upset/It’s as enraged as I get/And you ain’t seen me mad yet/And now I’m mad”. As a statement of intent it does not get much better than this, and after the restrained pop charms of Afraid the album kicks into overdrive with Mercenary and Gun, which are as close to heavy metal as Rundgren will probably ever get.
A change of pace is apparent on Courage and Weakness, with the sweet harmonies and the acoustic/electric interplay evoking memories of the pop wunderkind of the early 70s, even if the latter track is a dead ringer for Black Maria from Something/Anything?
The second half of the album repeats this mix and match formula. Rundgren does his best Bon Scott impression on the hard rocking Strike, before scaling back for the obligatory novelty track Pissin, although quite what we are make of the line “Now your dick is in the mayonnaise” is anyone’s guess. Today is one of the few tracks to include a substantial keyboard part, while the album’s longest cut Bardo features rather dated progressive flourishes before launching into a terrific burst of feedback at the close.
Saving the best to last, the final three tracks drive the album home in some style. Mountaintop is tailor made for live performance with its massed guitars and super catchy “higher higher” refrain in the chorus. Panic is classic Rundgren with its whip smart time changes and vocal hooks, and the closing Manup is a shiny stadium rocker that manages to squeeze in a big guitar solo but does not outstay its welcome.
Although there are some who may wish Arena was recorded with a band rather than Rundgren’s ususal Protools set-up, which occasionally restrains the more powerful rock tracks, the songwriting continues the rich vein of form that was evident on Liars. For those wishing to hear the album performed by a full rock band, Rundgren is coming to these shores later in the year.