Almost two years ago to the day, Todd Rundgren released his 24th studio album, State. The prolific singer-songwriter-producer hasn’t been resting on his laurels in the period since State. He’s maintained a busy touring schedule both solo and with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, and has contributed to numerous studio projects this year including the progressive collaboration Runddans with Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen, and Starr’s Postcards from Paradise (on which he co-wrote and performed on the Beatles-quoting title track and also co-wrote “Island in the Sun”). But his most high-profile effort this year may well be his own album, Global. Using the dense, burbling EDM sounds of State as a sonic springboard, Rundgren once again is responsible for all vocals, the electronic instrumentation, songwriting, arranging and producing, with brief cameos from longtime collaborator Kasim Sulton, saxophonist Bobby Strickland, and a small group of background singers (including Todd’s wife Michele Rundgren and Jill Sobule).
On Global, Rundgren has broadened his lyrical scope from the United States to the world, offering more topical, sometimes-scathing observations. Rundgren has been refreshingly candid in describing his motivations for recording Global; he told Glide Magazine that, as with State, “I’ve actually had a label approach me and offer me an advance to make a record, which is, well, for an artist my age, I guess, is somewhat unusual. But also the fact that someone has enough faith in you to gamble on your ability to make a marketable record, and gives you the money in advance to do it, you know, is pretty bold. So I hadn’t actually been thinking about a record until the label came back to me and said, ‘Would you like to make another one?’ They wanted it done by the end of 2014 for release in the spring and I said, ‘Well, I can’t pass up the opportunity even though I don’t right now have an idea what I’m doing.’” Happily for listeners, ideas indeed came to Rundgren. Global balances the dark and the light on these twelve, of-the-minute tracks.
“Everybody” makes an appropriately rousing opening track, boasting an anthemic hook and sounding a bit like an update of “Bang the Drum All Day,” albeit with vocoder-style effects and synthesized organ. Rundgren’s cry of “Everybody clap your hands!” is infectious, and the artist’s trademark humor is on display as when he insists, “Everybody wants a twerk from Miley!” The uninhibited feel continues on tracks like the quirky, well-intentioned if borderline-goofy “Earth Mother” which name-checks Rosa Parks and quotes “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in an ode the women that “heal the world.” Todd asks, “Can I get a shout-out from my sisters?” as the all-female background group chirps “Yeah, brother!” in response. “Global Nation,” one of the most EDM-heavy tracks on the set is, like “Everybody,” a kind of call-to-arms: “I want to wrap my arms around the world and dance!” It’s a tough invitation to refuse especially because Rundgren’s facility with the electronic dance style has certainly matured since 2011’s [RE]Productions. This sensibility continues on the more reserved and earnest “Holyland.” “Earth is the holy land,” Rundgren sings with no irony evident. “Every drop of rain, blade of grass, grain of sand…No matter where you stand, you’re in the holy land.”
The tense “Rise” is even more sober. Over a harsh synth pattern, Rundgren reminds that “time keeps tickin’ away” and passes the message that “If we don’t rise, then we will fall.” One of the strongest melodies here, “Blind,” is also the album’s most scathing track. “You say God will handle everything,” Rundgren warns before adding, “Seems like he ain’t done shit so far…” Bobby Strickland’s saxophone gives the track a 1980s sheen that’s as unexpected as it is welcome. Rundgren passionately laments “the lust for easy wealth” on “Fate,” and offers similarly mordant commentary on “Skyscraper,” aimed at those in their “ivory towers” who need to connect with the average man. Long-serving Utopia member and Meat Loaf sideman Kasim Sulton joins Rundgren on harmonies on “Skyscraper.” The gleaming, metallic beats of “Fate” and “Skyscraper” place both songs in an ironically upbeat vein.
The strongest track on Global is also the one that will most appeal to fans of the classic Rundgren sound. The artist told Vintage Vinyl News that, upon hearing Sam Smith’s Grammy-winning “Stay with Me” on the radio, he thought, “I can do that with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back. I thought, ‘If that’s what people want to hear, I already got you covered here.’” It’s not mere hyperbole. “Soothe” is the prettiest ballad Rundgren has written in years, anchored by a synthesized church organ and sparing electronic instrumentation. You’ll hear echoes of “Can We Still Be Friends” or “Parallel Lines” in its melodic beauty and tender delivery. The personal and the, well, global conflate with vulnerability on the catchy “Terra Firma,” and Rundgren closes the album on a cautionary note with the musically-gentle “This Island Earth”: “We are the only ones to blame for what happens to this island Earth…There is no other place in this universe like this island Earth….Where is the love for this island Earth?”
At twelve tracks, Global doesn’t wear out its welcome, even if the all-electronic sound tends to make the songs blur into each other more so than on the artist’s traditionally-recorded albums of the past. (Indeed, Rundgren’s piano and especially guitar are both missing in action.) Esoteric Antenna’s U.K. edition of Global includes a bonus DVD containing The Unpredictable Todd Rundgren, a full 110-minute concert recorded at City Winery in New York City in March 2012 featuring such staples as “I Saw the Light,” “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” and “Love of the Common Man.” Though Rundgren’s embrace of stylistic diversity has broadened from R&B, Philly soul, Broadway and Laura Nyro-esque pop to include the modern if divisive sounds of EDM, Global shows that the artist hasn’t lost his knack for bold pop songwriting. For that alone, this sonic wizard and always-true star deserves some “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”