I’ll come clean. I’m one of the multitude of people (especially in the UK, apparently) for whom the name Todd Rundgren rang a bell, but I could no more have told you what his music sounded like than play it myself. Turns out he’s pretty genre-defying, so actually that’s almost forgivable. But he’s been around and productive for over thirty years, albeit as a rather well-kept secret, a word-of mouth cult.
So I didn’t know what to expect when I played the album, and was rather surprised to kick off with a smooth trance slice of highly polished electronica (Truth). This wasn’t going to be throwback rock’n'roll, then – or even prog rock, which was a possibility for a concept album (don’t see many of those about now, do you?). The theme is the lies we encounter in our daily lives, running from the little white ones (Happy Anniversary) up to the great big whoppers fed to us by the media, our colleagues or our culture.
That’s pretty well where the links end, because each of the 14 tracks is a jewel in its own right, and every one could come from a different artist or a different genre. The consistency lies in the musicality, the polish, the professionalism, the sheer delight in listening to every one.
Sweet takes the cool sounds of Truth but slows them down for a gentle, laid-back late-night feel. Soul Brother does have a retro feel – in fact it sounds remarkably like the Zombies classic She’s Not There, with its cool jazz rhythm – but the vocals are soulful, and there’s some great flute floating over the top.
Stood Up is pure fun. “When I found out we could have some brains / I was the first in line / ’cause we were like dragging our knuckles along the ground…” is just the first of dozens of wonderful lyrics and the tune, with excursions into mind-expanding psychedelia, is magic.
The mood gets much darker with Mammon, ominous chords and strings leading into heavy percussion and constantly changing rhythms before a snarling vocal: “You haven’t heard the word of God since your wasted youth… Your God is Mammon.” This track has everything (including a heavenly chorus and a guitar break) but it hangs together perfectly and is wildly exciting.
Future is a shimmering track that brings us back to a sassier elctronic present; Past and Wondering are laid-back songs that wouldn’t disgrace Stevie Wonder, and reveal that quite apart from his huge musical talent, Todd Rundgren can sing, too.
There’s more fun in Flaw, a deceptively sweet song until you listen to the lyrics – “You could be my everything / You almost have it all / You’d be perfect but you’ve got one fatal flaw / So why you gotta be / Such a lying-ass motherf**ker…” There’s no answer to that.
Rundgren isn’t afraid to tackle tricky subjects. Afterlife is a gorgeous soul song that asks some very deep questions and Living does the same but with a dance beat and some heavy guitars. And then we get to God Said – “It’s not me that you seek, you’re looking at yourself…” – one of the most beautiful songs in decades, with or without the lyrics.
The trickiest question of all is saved for last. Liar is another standout track (among many) with heavy Middle Eastern musical influences, that doesn’t flinch at questioning fundamentalism. Sounds heavy – and it is – but the music is still wonderful.
What was I doing all the years Rundgren has been turning out such creatively gorgeous stuff? Okay, this is the first album for nearly a decade and he’s better known for production work for artists as diverse as Meat Loaf and the New York Dolls, but that’s no excuse. This album is a must-have, and now I have to go out and buy up the back catalogue.