Todd Rundgren has entitled his new studio album State, but the title is a loaded one: is Todd commenting on a state? Is he commenting on the state? What state is he in? What is he stating? And after all, when Todd Rundgren announces a new album, does anybody ever really know which Todd Rundgren to expect? On his first album for the Esoteric Antenna label, Rundgren has taken his inspiration – and not so implausibly, I might add – from the likes of Skrillex and Frank Ocean, placing his voice in the middle of a dense, thick setting of swirling electronica and burbling dance beats. The longtime one-man band has intentionally avoided organic sounds on the ten-song set, but it’s all Rundgren – as producer, arranger, songwriter, singer and sole musician. Certainly many readers of The Second Disc will seek out State as a new collection of songs from Todd (or “DJ Odd,” as he’s billed on the album’s back cover!), but he and Esoteric have sweetened the pot by offering the album not just as a standalone CD, but in a 2-CD Deluxe Edition with a career-spanning concert from 2012 featuring The Metropole Orchestra (EANTCD 21018).
Its cover coincidentally recalls that of David Bowie’s recent “comeback” The Next Day, and its nonstop beats recall [RE] Production, Rundgren’s last and arguably most inexplicable album. But State is a return to the topical, observational songwriting of 2004’s Liars, though mostly without that album’s undercurrent of seething anger. It’s not a “concept” album like 2008’s Arena, a collection of arena-ready guitar rockers, or 2011’s unfortunately-titled Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, a Robert Johnson covers set. The D.I.Y. State offers numerous flashes of Rundgren’s past in a computerized setting that’s equal parts intriguing and frustrating.
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The shimmering opening song, “Imagination,” is a mission statement of sorts. It apparently laments lack of imagination - and nobody could accuse the restlessly creative Mr. Rundgren of ever coming up short in that department. On the low-key rumination, his voice is awash with electronic enhancements and effects which continues with the pitch-shifting and sound manipulation, vocoder-style, on “Serious.” The boisterous “Serious” takes in robotic voices and thumping, metallic beats with a dollop of the artist’s trademark deadpan humor in its lyrics: “Serious! Serious as I can be! Better call the cops on me! I’m about to chain react! Because I’m serious as a heart attack!”
But he is serious, you see. Though those listeners looking for the lush piano-pop balladeer or Philadelphia soul disciple of the past still might be advised to look elsewhere, Rundgren sees to it that State – once you accept its overarching musical concept – isn’t a monotonous listen. “Smoke” has a wistful melody that might leave you yearning to hear it without all of the electronic backing, even though it’s clear that Rundgren composed it, like the entirety of the album, with the completeness of the sound in his mind. Similarly, the intimate vocal on the verses to the vaguely suggestive “In My Mouth” (“There is something in my mouth for you…”) recalls classic Rundgren over the insistent, omnipresent beats.
The production is still decidedly “modern” but there’s a bit of a sleek soul overtone on the offbeat plea to “Ping Me.” Even employing his best R&B falsetto, the song is a clever riff on the need for human connection. “Ping Me” isn’t the only contemporary, relevant reference. On “Angry Bird,” Rundgren is musically recreating the sound of a video game, all chiming effects and a certain amount of sterility – with the insistent refrain “She’s an angry bird!” Rundgren has recently stated that “the basis for the War on Woman is also the basis for the game Angry Birds. Some pigs are trying to control the reproduction of the birds.” And he ran with that, just one of the provocative notions that subtly and not-so-subtly provide clues as to the artist’s State of mind.
A nervous, pensive pattern opens “Something from Nothing.” It tackles a weighty subject with less levity than “Angry Bird” when Rundgren introduces a place where there “used to be a well.” He continues, “This town has dried up long ago/There’s no tale left to tell/I am the sole survivor/Each day I search the sky and never a rain cloud goes by.” He ponders, “I have faith, I have faith/What is faith? Something from nothing…” Todd waxes philosophical to a pretty melody, setting a reflective mood via one of the less elaborate, more emotionally direct arrangements on the album. But although the song seems like it’s preaching the importance of faith in hard times, it’s also expressing Rundgren’s feelings about the shortcomings of faith or the necessity of believing in one’s reality. (In other words, if all you have is faith, do you know anything for sure at all?) Guest vocalist Rachel Haden delivers a strong vocal on this track.
Rundgren strikes a good balance between the light and the dark on State, all the while pushing his own, occasionally frustrating musical envelope. The punningly-titled, chaotic “Collide-a-Scope” features electronically "improvised" drum beats accompanied by clipped, short lyrical phrases juxtaposing opposites: “I’m yes, I’m no/Goodbye, hello,” and so on and so forth. “Party Liquor” (a dark rewrite of “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” it seems) has a more familiar four-on-the-floor feeling with a mocking vocal from the singer. For all of the electronic manipulation, Rundgren’s voice is strong, full and confident. Another pun arrives with closing track “Sir Reality,” one of the more muscular, guitar-oriented tracks on the album and one which drives home the album’s big notions. It blithely asserts, “Knowledge comes for free,” “the rich deserve to be,” “all science is a play” and “a gun is just a toy” in its list of “realities.” Age hasn’t mellowed this restlessly experimental singer-songwriter.
The bonus disc on the deluxe edition of State is strong enough to warrant its own release. The November 11, 2012 concert at Amsterdam’s Paradiso Theater was a return engagement following a similar September 2011 performance. Steve Sidwell conducted a roughly 50-piece orchestra playing Tom Trapp’s arrangements of Rundgren classics spanning the near-entirety of his career, with Todd out front on material ranging from Something/Anything’s “Hello, It’s Me” through Liars’ “Mammon.” Still other songs were performed live for the first time. There’s truly something for everyone on this disc, from the loopy “Frogs” to the joyously groovy “We Gotta Get You a Woman” and the ethereal beauty of “Can We Still Be Friends.” (The latter is one of three songs represented from 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow, along with “Bag Lady” and “Fade Away.”) The Metropole Orchestra brings out every possible color in the material, and the vocals are impressively robust. Taken together, these songs are a potent reminder of just how terrific and creative a songwriter Rundgren is at his best.
If there’s a flaw to this disc, it’s simply that it doesn’t include the entire concert. Fan favorite “I Saw the Light” is missing, along with “2nd Wind,” “Wailing Wall,” “Mary and the Holy Ghost,” and “Property.” Perhaps a future standalone release will rectify that, but in the meantime, this swinging, lush and sprawling live disc is essential listening for any fan of Rundgren in any era. (If you’re interested in those missing songs, search around the Internet. The artist allowed fans to record the concert in order to create a crowd-sourced video of the evening which would be shared online with his knowledge.)
On State, Todd Rundgren asks, “What is hell? The same old smell, the same old situation…no imagination.” For his fans who wish to revisit those aromatic old smells, the Deluxe Edition’s live bonus disc should fit the bill. For those who are willing to follow Rundgren as he follows his own muse, wherever it may lead, State itself should prove just as rewarding a listen. It’s filled with incisive musings…and plenty of imagination.
Todd Rundgren, State: Deluxe Edition (Esoteric Antenna EANTCD 21028, 2013)
CD 1: State
- In My Mouth
- Ping Me
- Angry Bird
- Something from Nothing
- Party Liquor
- Sir Reality
CD 2: Live with the Metropole Orchestra, November 11, 2012
- Another Life
- Hello It’s Me
- Pretending to Care
- If I Have to Be Alone
- Love in Disguise
- Love Science
- Fascist Christ
- We Gotta Get You a Woman
- Bag Lady
- Can We Still Be Friends
- Fade Away