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Todd Rundgren


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On first listen, Todd Rundgren's "Real Man," the opening track on his new album, Initiation, sounds promising: a soaring melody, sparkling production, an aching lead vocal and a Motown-ish rhythm track—in short, the kind of details that once made him an imposing performer/producer—add up to the most likable piece of pop Rundgren has cut in some time.

But that's on first listen. The second time around, the lyrics begin to intrude. "Don't take no crap from no one," warbles Todd, "Be a real man/Get your trip together/Be a real man."

Is it cosmic machismo, then, that has driven Todd to master every technique the modern recording studio has to offer? According to the next cut, "Born to Synthesize," "I was born to synthesize/Energize and catalyze ... A handful of nothing is all that I need." True to such sentiments, Rundgren devotes the remainder of Initiation to an orgy of ostentatious expertise, producing a splashy garble of electronic flimflam.

It's a familiar scenario. Once one of pop's freshest voices, Rundgren now bids fair to become the medium's most spectacular casualty of technological overkill. Beginning with A Wizard/A True Star, each new Rundgren LP has gotten progressively more cumbersome, as Todd has ardently pursued his apparent ambition to leave no gadget unused.

He in fact has forfeited his mastery of the concise cut in favor of bigger game. A decent melody like "Real Man" is now flawed by a pompous lyric; and the instrumental playfulness that Rundgren once distilled (on Something/Anything's "Breathless") into a three-minute romp now sprawls over a whole album side, 36 minutes long. As its title suggests, "A Treatise on Cosmic Fire" is a trendy pastiche of hand-me-down electric music, a foray into virtuosity for its own sake (with debts to Frank Zappa and the Mahavishnu Orchestra).

While technology has recently threatened to dominate rock in this way, groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer have deliberately cultivated the unlimited bombast synthesizers and amplification make feasible. Rundgren, on the other hand, originally relied on more traditional — and modest—forms of pop to focus his talent (just listen to The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, his masterpiece).

Unfortunately, Rundgren, unlike Stevie Wonder, hasn't yet learned to humanize his technology and limit it to a manageable means. Instead, he has let the available techniques dictate his musical strategy, a situation that has been exacerbated by his conversion to mealy-mouthed mysticism ("Love owns us all, Time owns us all, Life owns us all/But the world doesn't own me").

But then, maybe Initiation is just another sign of the times and of one man's inability truly to master the machines at his disposal. Which leads one to wonder: Who's got what trip together?


(Posted: Jul 17, 1975)


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