Todd Rundgren Arena (Hi-Fi Recordings, 2008)
Loyalty is essential for fans of the legendarily eclectic Todd Rundgren, because, from album to album, you never know just which Todd you're going to get. Throughout his over four decades as a recording artist, Rundgren has constantly confounded stylistic expectations in the pursuit of his untamed muse. Thus, it's been a wild ride from the so-called "proto power pop" of his first band, Nazz, to the piano-pounding, blue-eyed soul of his Runt years and his seminal 1972 one man band milestone, Something/Anything?
Since then he's also made stops at hard rock, Tropicália, R&B, AM pop ballads, and even a successful stab at laptop drum `n' bass with 2004's Liars. Then, there were the various incarnations of his band Utopia, which evolved from a populous quasi-jazz prog rock ensemble to a populist four-man new wave strike force over several wildly different albums between 1974 and 1986.
As an iconoclastic studio rat, Rundgren has redefined what it means to be a solo artist, particularly when technological advances have enabled him to march to the beat of his own drum machine.
Yet there are commonalities in his work, and even at his most conceptual, Rundgren's diversions always manage to bear melodically inventive fruit. And music aside, his lyrics have constantly strived to reconcile life's biggest spiritual and intellectual questions. As such, Todd's devoted fans trust him to show them a good time, wherever they may end up.
Even casual fans, though, will rejoice upon hearing that Rundgren has decided, on his 20th solo release, Arena, to crank up a good old "sing-along, guitar-rock" record. Naturally, Rundgren's philosophical bent leads him to spike these metallic leanings with a lyrical dissertation on the nature of anger, violence, and courage; albeit one that you can pump your fist and make devil horn hands to. Fittingly, the cover photo depicts a leaping Rundgren in a decidedly gladiatorial pose, bare-chested with guitar and shield at hand. What's put him on the warpath?
Well, it appears that, like many of us, Rundgren has had enough of eight years of the Bush Doctrine, and continuing on from Liars, a study of human deception, Arena dwells on the next step: Emotional consequences. I don't know about you, but when I find out someone's been lying to me, I usually get mad before I get even. Rundgren must feel that way too, because he opens with a track called "Mad." Starting with nimble acoustic fingerpicking in a cave-like reverb, the track escalates into stadium-sized rock rage as Rundgren's righteous anger boils over atop an aggressive eighth-note bass pulse and hard rock power riffing.
"This is more than upset,"Rundgren screams,"It's as enraged as I get / And you ain't seen me mad yet / And now I'm mad."
After staking out his hard-rocking territory, there's a brief soulful blues interlude on "Afraid" before he cranks it up again on "Mercenary." Rundgren could easily be talking about Blackwater, Inc.—the private military contractors hired by the Bushies in Iraq—when he sings, "Close your eyes and plug your ears and turn away / I will execute the task without dismay / Just leave upon the table what you've agreed to pay… I will do your dirty work."
"Gun" opens fire with a loaded Stratocaster over a Texas roadhouse boogie shuffle augmented with military chanting: "This is my rifle and this is my gun / This is for fighting and this is for fun." He's packin' heat, for sure, but one wonders how many NRA-lovin' Texas rednecks would lock and load to Rundgren's lyrical message: "I'm young, dumb, and I've got a gun / Public idiot number one / The constitution says that I'm so blessed / That I can clean my piece on the Supreme Court steps.
"Rundgren doesn't appear worried though, and fearlessly sticks to his thematic guns on the album's most striking tune, "Courage", a pressing call to find the bravery to follow one's convictions. Bold and anthemic, it's classic Rundgren, pondering the kind of emotional struggle he's previously explored in songs like "Real Man" from Initiation or "Determination" from Hermit of Mink Hollow.
"Weakness" glides masterfully back into Philly soul turf, this time with Hendrix-style ascending bass and guitar riffery, droning Hammond organ and a Wall o' Todd vocal chorus evocative of Something/Anything?
Next, Rundgren cranks up his best Angus Young guitar tone and affects a curiously Brian Johnson-like vocal rasp on "Strike." Sonically, it's as close as Rundgren has ever gotten to one of those massive Mutt Lange productions, complete with macho voices imploring the listener to "Strike while the iron is hot," and taunting, "Are you ready to rumble? / Are you just gonna grumble?
"Inversely, the slinky, cat-like "Pissin" calls out the kind of macho for macho's sake bore that launches futile battles just to win a pissing contest. Then, the testosterone subsides as themes of Zen enlightenment and reconciliation permeate the next three songs, "Today", "Bardo", and a proverb called "Mountaintop", in which a shuffling fuzz boogie riff roots a protagonist's lyrical search for a higher view of his world.
Nearing the end of the cycle, the manic Utopian rocker "Panic" implores the listener to avoid making rash decisions, even if the "room is on fire" before Arena's big finale, "Manup", hammers home the album's call to arms in a blazing finish.
In spite of the fact that Rundgren made Arena alone on his little laptop, the word that most comes to mind throughout is "big." This is big music—with big ideas, big drums, big vocals, and even bigger guitars—to be played in big halls. It's also the most accessible guitar-rock album Rundgren has made in years. To the Arena, then, and let the games begin.