Monday, January 18, 2010
Todd Rundgren: A Wizard, A True Star
by: Ric Hickey
A Wizard, A True Star
At the time of its release in 1973, Todd Rundgren’s sprawling art-pop masterpiece A Wizard, A True Star ascended no higher than number 86 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. But in the intervening years, the record has enjoyed a cult-favorite status like few other albums of the classic rock era. Though it garnered no hit singles, the album does boast a handful of Rundgren fan favorites, like “Zen Archer” and “Just One Victory”, songs that have been staples of Todd’s ever-evolving live show for over three decades.
Unlike any other record of its time, A Wizard, A True Star blended the Beatles’ Abbey Road medley mentality with the ambition of Zappa, the unbridled energy of fusion, and of course Rundgren’s own explosive imagination. The result was a sparkling pop record that, though it enjoyed success among Reungren’s small fanbase at the time of its release, would languish in relative obscurity for several years before it began to get the recognition it deserved. A Wizard, A True Star: Was the title alone perhaps an indication of an advanced sense of self-deprecating humor that would forever be lost on the general public and well beyond the comprehension of the masses? Even in an era when Zappa’s oddities and the prog-rock freak-outs of many others were quite common, it seemed both critics and the record-buying public needed time to soak up the subtleties of A Wizard, A True Star before its greatness began to become apparent. Almost as if it took a few years to properly digest.
For sure, many variants of rock music became simpler, less demanding to the listener, and almost watered-down sounding as the ’70s wore on. Whether it was the soft rock “California sound” that first blossomed in the early ’70s or the angry punk of just a few short years later, it all aimed for a gut-level target. To his never-ending credit, Rundgren never stooped to that level. He has, throughout his career, made brainy rock music for brainy people, and his reward is a devoted cult following of hardcore fanatics that trail his every move and support his every musical whim even as he has pursued his muse down some unexpected avenues.
The album opens with an ominous synthesizer line, as “International Feel” eerily unfolds like a sonic snake turning itself inside out, only to reveal a shimmering sheath of diamond melodies. Originally from the Broadway production of Peter Pan, the placement of “Never Never Land” in the number two slot always struck me as a brilliantly far-reaching gesture. So early in the proceedings! To croon with aching sincerity this long-lost Broadway ballad full of flowery chords and sappy sentiment, as a launching pad for the maze of maniacal self-examination to follow?
This is the listener’s first clue of the rapidly dawning revelation that this album is comprised of many short little ditties that segue seamlessly and continuously throughout. Side one in particular has long since been considered both the prototype and the Gold Standard of Pop Collage, blending sparkling segments into the blindingly brilliant sum of its perfect parts. Among the stream of gems that follow is “Flamingo”, one of this writer’s favorite tunes on the record. A clever and playful instrumental, a tiny symphony for synthesizers, “Flamingo” is reminiscent of some of Zappa’s Hot Rats era stuff.
Later, we hear Rundgren’s elastic and electric voice stretch and soar in an unlikely medley of ’60s cover tunes, beginning with the soft and sentimental trilogy of “I’m So Proud”, “Ooh, Baby Baby”, and “La La Means I Love You.” (For such a goofball, apparently he can really nail a ballad when he wants to.) Rundgren shifts gears for the medley’s final segment, a crazed remake of the frenetic ’60s dance pop track “Cool Jerk.” Employing some unexpected rhythm shifts to dizzying effect, Rundgren’s frantic performance seems to skip and jump and fold over on its perky, patchwork self. Other highlights of the album include “Is It My Name?”, a climactic outburst of guitar histrionics, and the album’s anthemic closer “Just One Victory.”
Though the album was released 36 years ago, A Wizard, A True Star could well be seen as something of a career retrospective. Considered by many to be his magnum opus, it’s got all the hallmarks of Rundgren’s music: Humor of both the cerebral and cornball varieties, advanced musicianship, beautifully crafted pop songs and ballads, a couple of ironic rockers, a handful of covers, and perhaps most poignantly, some surprisingly insightful lyrics that reveal a vulnerability and yearning for truth and love and understanding. The meditative “Zen Archer”, the melancholy lamentations of “I Don’t Want to Tie You Down”, and the bittersweet “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel” are all perfect examples of Todd Rundgren’s soul-searching lyrics, echoing introspection, and self-administered “rock therapy” as prayer.