On Todd Rundgren’s White Knight and Being a Fan
“Once you leave no turning back. Well, why did Todd pull us back? The terror of beauty makes one momentarily bitter. First star to the right and straight on till morning. […] Each album he vomits like a diary. Each page closer to the stars.”
—Patti Smith reviewing Todd Rundgren’s “A Wizard, A True Star” for Creem, April 1973
This record review will begin in a way no good record review will never begin, but this one needs to: I am a huge Todd Rundgren fan. This is no secret: I’ve written about my obsession publicly, photographed and documented my Todd record collection (which I catalogue with such specificity as to note the type of liner sleeve and the engraving on each so that I can make sure I don’t duplicate my duplicates). I’ve inserted myself online and in person into Todd’s incredibly tight and loyal community of fans, obsessing on forums over shared obscure recordings, ranking albums and shows, taking part in fan gatherings in Akron and Rockford, Illinois, finding commonalities and differences in our broad tastes through conversation with those united in Todd.
There’s a lot to compare and contrast: Todd’s recording career has spanned 50 years, 26 solo studio albums and more than a dozen albums with his bands The Nazz and Utopia; he’s pushing 70 and still releasing new material. Every new Todd album is a source of hand-wringing joy and anxiety for these fans. Will he abandon synthesizers once and for all? Will it bring in younger fans? Will it be as experimental as when eschewed his previous Laura Nyro-esque sound to create the psychedelic insanity of A Wizard, A True Star? When Todd announced earlier this year that he’d have a new album out in May called White Knight, and that it would feature collaborations with such a wide variety of artist as Swedish pop star Robyn, blue-eyed soul king Daryl Hall, industrialist Trent Reznor, hip-hop impresario and avant-garde filmmaker Michael Holman, dad-rocker Joe Walsh, and rock guitar legend Joe Satriani, fans started salivating. I was among them, eager to hear what such collaborations would end up sounding like, how much Todd’s sound would be a part of it. I posted on the fan forums about how anxious I was just to hear a smidgen of a track, just a few days before he finally released a sneak peak of “That Could Have Been Me,” his collaboration with Robyn, which was more or less very well-received, and which I played to death from the Soundcloud link.
Being a fan is about a kind of repetition: an obsessive repetition that brings you to a feverish and intense familiarity akin to love. When you know the song like the back of your hand before you’ve even had a chance to think about what it means. I was in love with one track from the album, and it was a very Todd track, and so I was very in love. I couldn’t wait for what came next.
Then, closer to the release date, I started reading reviews of the new album, and knew instantly that these reviews would do me absolutely no good. It was like reading someone describing a specific shirt once worn by someone whose every facial detail you had memorized. Like describing a peony as a round pink thing. Nothing drilled down deeply enough for what I was looking for. As far as critical album reviews for broader audiences go, they are all absolutely solid and fair reviews. They paid close attention to production and lyrics, and attempted to place the sound of this album within the greater 2017 sonic landscape. Which, fine, but for someone with an intimacy with Todd’s career that goes beyond the greatest hits and trivia nuggets like the fact that he produced Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, most of these reviews fall hopelessly flat.
To paraphrase Todd’s lyric on his collaboration track with Moe Berg (of The Pursuit of Happiness fame) “Let’s Do This”: reviewers are playing checkers, fans are playing chess.
In context of the span of Todd Rundgren’s career (as opposed to the context of the current musical landscape), White Knight stands out significantly among his recent albums. Many of Todd’s previous albums have been reactions to something in the zeitgeist, especially very recently: his two most recent albums, State and Global, latched firmly onto the idea that EDM was where it’s at, and Todd worked hard to write songs that fit into that genre. A few years prior, Todd released an all-blues album winkingly called Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, which also hugged closely to a single genre. It doesn’t mean these albums weren’t good, it just meant that they were more narrow in scope, resulting in some great songs on otherwise merely pretty good albums. The songs on White Knight feel like something else: songs that have been simmering a long time in his mind, songs with depth and breadth, whose only shared theme is Todd himself.
Todd has said in recent interviews that he tried to write songs on White Knight that matched well to each collaborator, yet each song still has a distinct Todd sound that is undeniable to those in the know. To normal ears, “Chance For Us” sounds like Todd tried to write a Hall & Oates track, but to my ears, it sounds equal parts “Too Much Water” off of Utopia’s Oblivion (right down to the direct lyrical reference in the first verse: “Too much water under a broken bridge…”) and “The Waiting Game” from 1989’s Nearly Human. John Boutte’s voice sounds perfect for “Beginning (Of the End),” but Todd fans will listen to it and hear that our man who wrote the killer “The Verb “To Love”” in 1978 is killing it once again.
As a fan, it’s impossible not to compare White Knight sonically to his other albums across those five decades instead of trying to place it in the 2017 music universe: here it sounds like mid-90s Liars Todd, there like Utopia’s 1985 POV. This is especially true since there’s such a huge back catalogue serving as our reference. It’s easier then, as a fan, to offer up these references as a review: fans who loved Nearly Human, Liars, No World Order and mid-80s Utopia will likely love White Knight. Todd fans who gravitate more towards Runt or Something?/Anything? and early 70s prog-rock Utopia will like it much less. If these references don’t mean anything to you at all, it doesn’t mean the album won’t mean anything to you, but it indicates clearly that you’re coming at this from an entirely different angle, and therefore this album may miss the mark. Our angle as fans is simply and conveniently already pointing in the direction of love and obsession, with a stack of albums in the back seat lending to the weight of our momentum. This is true of any fan: I could use this same line to review the new Harry Styles or B.o.B. who both have new albums out, each with their own nods to fandom. The more you know an artist, the more prepared you come to their next endeavor, and the easier it is to level up with them.
More experimental artist often have a harder time retaining audiences. Some will stick with an aspect of their music that has been criticized simply to buck a trend; often the most familiar aspects of Todd Rundgren’s sound are also his most criticized. On White Knight, Todd has definitely not abandoned synthesizers, for example, but for good reason: the synthetic sound on many of these tracks works to push the vocals to the forefront, and underpin the tracks in manner distinctly nostalgic for his back catalogue – both his 70s albums such as Todd and Initiation as well as some of the later digital stuff he embraced through most of his career in the 80s and 90s on albums like No World Order and Liars. A novice assessment of White Knight would hear synths and think broadly of the 80s – and certainly this is exactly what most of the reviews focus on – but Todd’s use of synthesizers goes deep into his back catalogue, and to the well-versed fan can feel, frankly, comfortable. (Not all fans: many die-hards complain about his close reliance on synthesizers on his albums in the last few decades, though whenever someone complains of Todd’s overuse of synthesizers, I jump to remind them of “Breathless,” one of the best tracks on his most widely received album, the 1972 smash Something?/Anything?, built entirely on synthesizers and more interesting for it.)
Another oft-criticized characteristic of Todd’s albums is the thinness of Todd’s mixes: it can be heard on Hermit of Mink Hollow or The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect with the sharp shimmering guitars on “Determination” and “Drive,” or on the vocal mixes done on Faithful’s “Love of the Common Man” and A Wizard, A True Star’s “International Feel.” Going back even further to 1971 and the opening keyboards on the opening track of his album Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren “Long Flowing Robe,” it’s a hallmark of his production: a crystal clarity than can be annoying to some ears, but to mine and others’ has always been part of the very specific intrigue of his sound. It’s so distinctly sharp and “high” that it feels like it’s piercing straight into the brain, and we’re happy to have him scream right on in.
There’s another aspect to Todd’s music that unless understood can be misinterpreted: his ultra-specific and warped sense of humor. Some of the most criticized tracks on White Knight are those that Todd wants us to laugh at. His Prince-esque funk beat and vocals lounging over the voice of an auctioneer on “Buy My T” (the bridge is a gospel style chorus of “pushing cotton, we’re pushing cotton”) are meant to drive a piece of controversially dark satire home: he’s singing about the exploitation of musicians – yes, often black musicians – for profit in the form of limited edition t-shirts. And I’ll probably skip “Tin Foil Hat” on subsequent listens, but its initial skewering of Trump is a droll and timely listen. Many reviewers have cast it as a song Steely Dan would have rejected, but this isn’t meant to be Todd & Donald Fagen’s “Hey Nineteen”: it’s a politically fierce little oddball that would be more appropriate on on a shelf next to Donald Fagen’s Morph The Cat than it would be beside Aja. (As an added bonus, those familiar with the instrumental music Todd wrote for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse will find something familiar underneath Fagen’s presidential pokings.) More Todd-style jokes occur on “Look At Me” – where Todd raps over a deep beat “got my pants round my knees, yeah/if you think that’ll please yaaa” – and again on “Naked & Afraid” – which starts out with a strange flatulent synth and pumping club beat, absolutely the last track in the world you’d expect Bettye Lavette to guest vocal on and then suddenly, BOOM: BETTYE LAVETTE.
This intimate Todd-style fun is lost on most reviewers of White Knight: sure, much of it is an inside joke for Todd fans, but there’s something to be said for rewarding the faithful. Intimacy with Todd’s previous work affords us a forgiveness others don’t have, but also a preparedness. Our comfort in certain sounds comes through a long history with his key changes, or with very specific Todd production styles. His voice alone is a lodestone that is undeniably essential to Todd fans. (If I would fault anything on this album, it would be that the vocals – which are a huge part of the album’s strength – are pushed a little too low in the mix on most tracks, noticeable enough at the beginning of “Let’s Do This” that it sounds like a production error. Even with an intense study of Todd’s back catalogue, I can’t find an adequate explanation for this.) Our familiarity with his voice and his style makes us ready to love it from track one.
So what do I love about White Knight? Mostly, it starts at the point just past the familiar. I love how Todd cuts up Joe Walsh’s guitar to contrast his smooth moonlit vocals on the swooning love ballad “Sleep.” I love the way Robyn takes the slightly off-beat path as she sings “when I should have broken free/I was willingly a fool” in the second verse of “That Could Have Been Me,” as if she’s holding her breath. I love how the guitars flow like a lazy river in “Wouldn’t You Like To Know,” Todd’s beautiful duet with his son, Rebop. I love how on both “Fiction” and “I Got Your Back,” the latter a collaboration with Todd’s “Global” album touring support & modern funk musician Dâm Funk and Kauian rapper KK Watson (who calls Todd “dad” on the track, which, shouldn’t we all?), Todd’s voice wobbles like Horace Andy’s did on Massive Attack’s “Angel” and there’s a perfectly subtle but persistent beat when the 2nd verse kicks in. You might like something different. You might not like it at all. I’ve met very few people who love Todd on first listen: he’s an acquired taste. White Knight is a complex album, but one you’ll understand better the more you understand Todd. I can promise you that.
White Knight is out now from Cleopatra Records.