todd rundgren’s brave new world…. a review of ‘STATE’

“All of these songs are about a paucity of truth. At first they may seem to be about other things, but that is just a reflection of how much dishonesty we have accepted in our daily lives. We are raised from birth to believe things that cannot be proven or that are plainly not true…. The fact is, we are terrified of the truth.” – Todd Rundgren, from the liner notes of Liars, 2004

Fast forward 9 years to 2013. Back to the future… and Todd’s new album STATE, the first set of new songs from Todd since 2006’s Arena.

The word “state” can have a number of connotations, as both noun and verb, as in “state your name,” “state your case, your truth,” “state of mind, being” “state of the nation, world,” “state of the music industry,” and perhaps most ominously, THE State. The ambiguous, open-ended title gives a clue as to what Todd’s going to be delving into and he covers all bases here.

STATE  is definitely a headphone album, so…. “you’ll want to get ’em out and get ’em cranked up, ’cause they’re really gonna help you on this one.”

Todd Rundgren's new album, "STATE"
Todd Rundgren’s new album, “STATE”

The opening track, “Imagination,” kicks off with an ethereal, skittering synth line – pleasant, reassuring enough and then it changes key and starts to wobble a bit…. something’s wrong here…  And then in come the thunderous drums followed by an ominous chord progression on bass, keys, and guitar. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am, I tell myself,” Todd sings – things are all right again.  The individual states his case in a world where “nothing’s ever right or wrong,” and all he has to do is “just go along and get along.”

The response? The musical furies are unleashed and ask “what is hell?” That “same old smell” and the “same old situation.” He has “no imagination.” The song features a wicked guitar solo and its call and answer interplay between the individual and the forces arrayed around/against him – to remind him where he is and to not think foolishly or naively that things “will just work out” – is brilliant. Cautionary tale indeed.

Like “Truth,” the opening track from Liars, “Imagination” grabs your attention immediately and sets the tone for the rest of the album. What’s different here: it’s not the search for truth or meaning anymore in the glaring lack of it. Instead we get reality, or “Sir Reality” (wonderful play on words there) in the glaring lack of real critical thinking, free-thinking, and… imagination. Blissful unawareness and mental laziness ain’t gonna cut it in this brave new world. It’s a brave new world because only the brave will be able to inhabit (and inherit) it.

For this album, Todd “reinvented” himself into “DJ Odd” and recorded the songs in the same way that many electronica/EDM (Electronic Dance Music) artists do now, using just a laptop, keyboard controller, and guitar. He also said in interviews that he did some research into the genre by listening to Skrillex, among others.

That infleuence seems most evident in the songs “Serious,” “Collide-A-Scope,” and the appropriately titled, “Party Liquor.” But it’s not as dubsteppy as it sounds or in the way one might think. Todd injects his own prodigious melodic sense and ways with a ‘toon’ into these ten songs and into a genre that, more often than not, is badly in need of it. Having adopted EDM’s prevailing M.O., he remakes the genre as his own (interesting to note that in the month-and-a-half since STATE was released, the album has charted on Billboard… in the electronica/EDM category).

“Serious” treads similar lyrical ground as “Mad” from Arena (“Clear!”). “Ping Me” explores the tenuous nature of relationships in general in the age of social media – “just let me know that I have crossed your mind.” It’s a similar sentiment as you would find in his signature song, “Hello, It’s Me” – “I take for granted that you just don’t care”…. so [in 2013] “ping me.” “Smoke” and “Something From Nothing” are both gorgeous songs, full of textural, rhythmic synths, either of which would have been right at home on Liars. Todd’s vocals are in fine form throughout.

For as open-ended and subject to interpretation as the lyrics tend to be here, there are some that definitely are not, but the intent always seems to be one of getting the listener to question the things they see and hear in their life or habitually think (as in many of Todd’s songs). He tosses out clues in the lyrics, particularly where they have to do with cultural assumptions, e.g. “money brings you joy” and “the rich deserve to be” (“Sir Reality”). They are far weightier than one might think upon first listening. And sometimes they’re not (a big LOL for the line “and the TV’s blaring ’cause they can’t find the clicker” from “Party Liquor”). She’s an “Angry Bird”…  and she’s also an app on your android.

STATE feels like a companion piece to Liars – a check-in 9 years later to see what conditions the “paucity of truth” might have led to and where things stand because the future IS now. It’s hard to call STATE  futuristic, at least not in the same way Liars  sounded futuristic when it came out in 2004, but that’s sort of the point: it’s an accurate reflection of the state of various elements of societal life, social interactions and our cultural diversions in 2013 with 9 more years of computer-based recording under our belts. As that relates to the music one might hear (especially on mainstream radio geared towards a younger audience), it’s how it sounds, how it looks, and how it gets made, keeping in mind that computer-based recording has pretty much become the standard in the industry now, particularly for certain genres. Todd is simply holding up a mirror to all of this.

todd_state_poster_2013_best
Artwork by Rose Wassel.

Since my co-worker and office-mate, Brian, does listen to Skrillex – though he will tell you he prefers Tech N9ne, Bassnectar, and Pretty Lights – this set the stage for an interesting experiment…

“We’ve secretly replaced Brian’s stash of techno/electronica with STATE…. Let’s watch what happens”…..

Which brings us to “Sir Reality”…. it’s a bookend to “Imagination.” The keyboard crescendos and guitar on this are particularly effective as Todd serves up a litany of questionable truisms  (“girls are girls and boys are boys” references “Happy Anniversary” from Liars). No Imagination = Your Reality…. if you go along and believe things that are “plainly not true.” And in the next line he tells you “The truth is plain to see…” if you but have the eyes – and the mind – to see (it is telling that in all the pictures on STATE, Todd is wearing goggles…. hmmm…).

The lack of truth is still with us in 2013, the lies just as blatant much of the time, more pervasive, but worse – we’ve gotten that much more used to them and they’re simply accepted as “normal.” What we get is “surreality” – a deeply uncertain time when the theme becomes one of discernment – realize where you are, think for yourself and figure things out (question), and don’t blindly go along – don’t be dumb, lest you find yourself in a “less than ideal” state.

todd-rundgren-state-2Sound unsettling?… bleak? Perhaps… but these are unsettling times and Todd has captured that perfectly on STATE. Maybe “unsparing” would be a better word, but it all sounds great and it’s a strong album. First and foremost, it is a ‘Todd album’ that fits in well and takes its place comfortably in his overall body of work. It’s an album that grows stronger – and whose lyrics more fully reveal their meanings – with repeated listenings.

STATE may well be the most important album released so far in 2013. The techno/electronica generation is listening and yeah, you can dance to it.

The 2nd disc is Todd performing with the Metropole Orchestra live at the Paradiso in Amsterdam in 2012. Spend the few extra bucks and spring for the Deluxe Edition of STATE, if you haven’t bought it already, because the live performances here are truly superb. You get fully orchestrated versions of Todd classics – “Hello, It’s Me,” “Can We Still Be Friends,” and “We Gotta Get You a Woman” – alongside lesser-known songs (“Frogs,” “Fascist Christ”), with some Utopia thrown in (“Another Life”). “Pretending to Care” (from A Capella) in particular benefits from a full orchestra and Todd’s voice has never sounded better on it. Other standouts include “If I Have to Be Alone,” “Mammon,” and the closer, “Fade Away.” The 2nd disc rounds out the listening experience and is definitely a must-have.

The Official STATE Tour is currently underway and coming to a venue near you. Check tour dates at http://www.toddstore.com/. I look forward to seeing it in July here in CO.

‘Til next time….

"Another Day in Paradox" - 2013
“Another Day in Paradox” – 2013

Another Day in Paradox,” the third and new album from Nights on Venus will be released officially on June 18th and available on CD and as digital download (MP3) on CDBabyiTunesBandcamp, Amazon,  and other fine online retailers and also on the NoV website.

Follow Craig and NoV on Twitter (@xlntsky) and Facebook.

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Author: nightsonvenus

Musician and producer with the band Nights on Venus.

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