Todd Rundgren, "Space Force" (2022) - Music Banter Music Banter

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Old 05-07-2023, 09:53 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Todd Rundgren, "Space Force" (2022)

First of all let me say that there is no doubt that Todd Rundgren is an incredible musical talent, a very original musician and producer, who always brings something interesting to the table. I've listened to practically all his albums, including his records with Utopia and The Nazz, and in all of them you find always great, admirable original stuff that makes worth the listen. I guess this qualifies me as a fan; although some things TR does, both musically and as a human being, annoy me to my core, I cannot help but always be interested in what he's up to and what's he doing next.

Necessary preface to say that "Space Force" isn't in my view one of his best albums, and certainly I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to his music (or even to "this part" of his music that we can perhaps mark from 2004, with his first proper work of electronica, "Liars"). But as with everything Todd Rundgren publishes, the bar is set very high and there's plenty to enjoy.

The record shows a variety that is a double-edged sword. The way TR likes to record albums, he usually likes to start by defining a little "mission statement" to follow (sometimes followed in a way that's a bit scholar; e.g. "making an album with arena rock songs" produces an album called "Arena", "making an album solely played a capella" produces an album called "A Capella"...) The mission statement for this one was: reaching out to other musicians and asking them for half finished songs they had in their vaults, and helping them finishing them as collaborations.

A premise like that has to forcibly result in a disjointed and weird album. Rundgren admits that in this record he felt his strong suit was the producer, that the artist took a step backwards... I'd say that that is true to an extent that, if you were given this album without knowing who the artist is, through a long portion of its running time it would be hard for you to guess (particularly, of course, in those songs where Todd does not sing).

But at the same time, this compilation of things makes the album a good "catalog" that contains a bit of each of the different styles Rundgren has been practicing through the years: RnB with atmospheric keyboards and lots of four note chords ("Puzzle", "Artist in residence", "Godiva girl"), catchy pop ("Someday"), weird ass pop a la "A Wizard, A True Star", ("I'm leaving"), attempts at hip hop ("Espionage"), novelty pieces ("Your fandango", "Down with the ship"), classic rock ("STFU", such a joy in this one to hear again his personal guitar style, and the way he roars in the chorus...), and even prog-rock that makes you think of Utopia in the song that closes the album, "Eco warrior goddess", which also contains a guitar collaboration by the almighty Steve Vai.

The thing for me is that the success rate is different for each of these experiments. Some songs work better than others. For me the lowest part of the album is the collaboration with Thomas Dolby, "I'm not your dog"; it's a song that had the materials to perhaps be great, but something fails in it, for me it doesn't reach its potential and just feels a bit stale and sluggish. "Your fandango" is another one that could have been cautiously shortened, once we've all got the joke.

In my own personal preference, I would have liked to see a bit more of rock in the mix. It would have sufficed for example if he had included his cover of Weezer's "Hash pipe". But it seems he is not very interested in rock these days...

There's another issue here; even in the songs that do work, they often show a certain flaw that I've been finding more and more in each new TR's album, and which is perhaps his Achilles' Heel: a certain dryness, an excess of concision, a lack of care for the details. With most of the songs, he seems to know for sure that he has a great tune, so he just cranks it out with the highest economy of means, to an extent that feels almost "skeletal". His previous album, "White Knight" (2017), also a collaborative effort, showed in my view the same problem, some songs almost felt "assembled" rather than composed. There isn't the luscious river of music you find in albums like "Todd" (perhaps my favorite, together with "A Wizard, A True Star", "Initiation" and the two first albums), it's almost arrogant the way in which he kinda dispatches each tune, like "there it is, a chorus, a verse, it's a song right? Now get out of here".

Maybe that development part is not fun for him and he just skips it, I hope that in future works he gives himself more headroom to experiment, insert random stuff... (That's what I like so much in "Todd", its mixture of clear well crafted tunes and more "foggy" stuff; some people dislike that album and consider it unfocused for that reason, but for me that creates a great balance for the listener).

The album of course boasts as another merit a great production, at least by my layman standards; there are plenty of moments where it has me thinking "nice sound!" or "how did he do that?".

Despite all its flaws and excesses, I keep returning to "Space Force" now and then because there's a lot to admire in there, and lots of nooks and crannies to discover. Todd said in an interview that, after his latest two collaborative albums, he is keen on making a new "proper" solo album for the next project. I look forward to that...
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