Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Todd Rundgren Comes Around

By Mike Macrone
Todd Rundgren

THE TURN OF A DECADE IS the type of event which, albeit extrinsic, provokes artists to concoct “cycles” which have circled back and to propound discrete philosophies. The old guard of rock music did not except itself in 1980, when convincingly grand ruminations on the nature of age and of faith appeared in Bob Dylan’s Saved (by Faith in the Word of the Lord), Van Morrison’s Common One (an excursion into the jazz-tinged spirit of the artist), and Lennon & Ono’s Double Fantasy (the fantasy of love). In the midst of these overtly philosophical and possibly pretentious works, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia whipped off a rather scathing Beatles parody, Deface the Music, whose only philosophy was facelessness, absence of creativity, and the commonality and reproducibility of supposedly great “art.” Todd cried wolf and then rather too quickly sprang back with his own overtly philosophical and possibly pretentious album, his latest, Healing.

Rundgren’s greatest liability as self-styled pop visionary is his incapacity to communicate or incite conviction. That he has yet to make a solid album is no secret: his aim is too diffuse, his taste too random, and his vision too obscure. Like David Bowie, Todd Rundgren is talented more as an interpreter than as creator; thus his impact as a “voice” is rather ineffectual. The problems with Rundgren’s collective work are the problems with Healing. Though the LP proposes (and asks for) conviction, the commitment to artist by audience can only be incomplete..

But the matter of conviction itself is outstanding Much like other members or rock’s upper echelons who have come of age, Rundgren has been caught in the resurgence of faith that defines a type of maturity: the acceptance of and cession to a singular calming force. For Lennon the force was love, for Morrison his unquenchably romantic soul, and for Dylan an iconographic creed; for Todd the force weaves from within the self into sound.

After a side of disjointed images and styles (the Will versus Compassion, Toddmusik versus Toddpop), Rundgren pulls off a stunning three-part suite comprising side two, “Healing.” Building on a minimal and circular bass riff (which refers to recent Ambient and progressive pop experiments), Part 1 is a hypnotically seamless construct proposing pure music as a basis for self-absorption and the resulting peace: “Listen to the voice/The voice is an illusion/Listen to the voice/Don’t let the words confuse you.… You need something to meditate on/Meditate on me.” The sound of his voice is the spark, his words irrelevant. Part II finds Rundgren within his own “soul,” defined by the sound of his breathing (the “breath of life”): it is a more skittery, haunting passage, eventually flowing into Part III, built like Part I. Todd’s message is clearly drawn: upon divination of the soul, one must weave his breath-sound for others, the needy.

This message, if arrogant, is clearly one of openness, though openness be rare in Rundgren’s work. The theme is reinforced on [line missing] formula of Hall & Oates cum ELO albino Phillysoul, salvaged by the progressive (for Todd) application of treated guitar. The A-side presses for Love Despite Pain, as “Time heals.”

I often find little sympathy for or patience with Todd Rundgren’s excesses but have been cracked by “Healing.” The LP is no masterpiece, and reservation is advised; but, if the whole proposal is not just another mask, it’s clear that the artist has initiated his own cycle of faith, and I’ve been caught up in the go-round.

Mike Macrone is the music editor of Issues.

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First published in Issues (1981)


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