Music Review: Todd Rundgren – State (Esoteric Antenna/Cherry Red, CD)

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Todd Rundgren ‘State’

The photo of Todd Rundgren’s studio in the booklet for his new CD says it all; a lone workstation sits in the darkness, and this is the place where Rundgren creates his music now. The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer made a string of amazing albums in decades past where he played real instruments—and EVERY instrument—but his last few studio albums have been mostly created on the computer.

Sometimes the technology can clash with what the artist is trying to accomplish—for instance, on Rundgren’s 2008 album Arena, on which he went for a guitar-oriented hard rock feel that didn’t always jibe with the programmed drum tracks. But State, the 2013 edition of the ongoing musical tale of Todd Rundgren finds him working in the style of techno, ­which is much better suited to his current recording mode (after all, isn’t most of today’s music created on computers?); it doesn’t hurt that State includes, in my opinion, Rundgren’s most compelling set of new songs in years—maybe decades.

State kicks off with “Imagination,” an eight-minute-plus meditation on a topic that’s obviously important to Rundgren: creativity. It’s a slow, hypnotic groove based around a dark chord progression that brings to mind early Black Sabbath, of all things. Not immediately catchy, but very effective and entrancing—it evoked memories of Rundgren’s meditation on meditation, 1981’s Healing.

State does find Rundgren exploring a variety of song styles channeled through the CD’s techno orientation. “Serious” is based around a James Brown-esque riff, while “Something From Nothing” is a classic Rundgren ballad that’s reminiscent of the soul-searching, yearning slow songs from his superb full-band albums Nearly Human (1989) and 2nd Wind (1991). “Party Liquor” could be a drinking-anthem sequel to Rundgren’s hit I-don’t-want-to-work battle cry “Bang on the Drum.”

Throughout his career, Rundgren has not only stayed on top of trends—he’s anticipated them. This time around, he’s commenting on current technology in that snarky way only he can; “Ping Me” cleverly finds him equating an online ping with a romantic declaration, while “Angry Bird” evokes the popular game in a tale about an unhappy female. “Collide A Scope” finds the artist at his most playful, matching opposite words in a whimsical way that evokes memories of  “Onomatopoeia” from 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow.

This isn’t the first time Rundgren’s worked in the techno style; his 2004 Liars CD played with modern dance motifs, although his command of the form on State is more assured and organically integrated with his classic songwriting style, which mixes challenging chord progressions with sweet melodies.

State may be jarring at first to longtime Rundgren fans. The electronic tracks may seem a drastic change from his more organic sounds of yesteryear. But stick with it. Over time and repeated playings, the substance of the material sinks in and the style becomes familar—and the strength of this work comes through like the gem it is.

Throughout State, Rundgren offers up sharp lyrics infused with his characteristic wit and sarcasm, served up over musical beds that serve up his imaginative chord progressions with clarity and style. No, there aren’t many real instruments played here—a bit of electric guitar on a few songs, and of course Rundgren’s still-stellar-after-all-these-years vocals. The strength of State is the songs—creative, melodic, memorable. Rundgren’s been at this a long time, but the State of the artist in 2013 proves he still has plenty of coal in the furnace.

Buy Todd Rundgren State: Deluxe Limited Edition 2 CD Set on Amazon
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  • Rob Lacone

    Fine review of what is one of my favorite Todd records in many years. Superb, catchy melodies in a variety of styles, this is classic Rundgren. I love it!

  • Gee Lampa

    It’s no NWO, but it has some keepers. I love the music, but TR’s voice is way too low in the mix, and I know he’s still got the chops (as evinced by a explosive Todd/Healing show performance).

    Alas, the well has run pretty dry, in terms of lyricism. I think this is where he has mostly stumbled. Once easy poeticism now seems like a struggle for Todd. The lyrics here feel like he’d almost rather not have to come up with them. I’d prefer the music, coupled w/ signature “oohs & ahhs”, frankly. His ear for the hook, found even in his most experimental stuff of yore, is noticeably AWOL here.

    I really feel like NWO was his last amazing bit of lyricism.

  • tony

    Gee Lampa, you implying that NWO doesnt have any keepers? Have you heard Fever Broke? If that isnt pure Todd then tell me what is!! Property is also great….
    I liken Todd’s latest run of albums to Paul McCartney….yeah maybe his classic albums are based in the 70s but with every new release there is one or two songs that remind you of why you liked them so much in the first place. On State, I love “something from nothing” and “Kaleidoscope” and am warming to “Ping Me” !

    • http://S2hc Gee Lampa

      On the contrary. I’m saying NWO was his last great album. Not sure how you read my remarks in reverse.
      In the last sentence, I write “I really feel like NWO was his last amazing bit of lyricism”.

  • alec

    dont agree at all. the songs are what is weak. the music is shallow. new sounds? really? what do listen to? is this article for old white men who pretend to really know about things?

    • tony

      Saying the songs are weak is subjective. Most people love Bohemian Rhapsody, I think its crap. But thats me. Its a fair point to say that TRs audience are probably not listening to this genre of music however if you think TR has ever tailored his music to his audience’s tastes then you dont really know his history.

  • Gee Lampa

    Dial it down, alec, you flea-bitten halfwit!

    I agree with you that it’s pretty #€@&’in weak, tho.

    Musically, there’s some decent sounds there, but it’s pretty uninspired on the whole. Lyrically, Todd’s never been in worse

    Part of his problem is his insistence on shutting himself up in a mancave and watching YouTube for hours, then trying to gain inspiration that way.

    It might be a better idea for him to just get in a room with some capable young session guys, and just go. Maybe some Compass Point guys. Todd’s so reknown for his “do it all” approach, he’s convinced himself that the only path to maintaining his famous (and long-dead) “unpredictability” is to hole up in an island paradise and churn out everything by himself.

    He’s not getting the memos; it’s not working very well.