If there is one thing Todd Rundgren can be counted on, it’s that he will do his own thing (good or not) without a thought toward commercial success or his fan base. After what I like to think of as his “golden” musical period ending in the early ’90s, he then emerged as a techno-futurist, with experiments in EMD, ambient, and rap music. Although ahead of his time and putting off many fans, Rundgren has continued breaking musical taboos and deconstructing his own work (and other artists’ music as well). He persisted in making music with techno beats and synth textures but proved his guitar prowess again on 2008’s Arena.
By the time we got to 2013’s State and 2015’s Global, Rundgren’s music had become slightly more accessible. His satiric voice and natural melodic abilities came bubbling up from all that thick custom-made production gloss. That all leads us to White Knight.
This is more like Rundgren’s version of Duets (sort of). He teams up with a variety of artists from assorted genres on a variety of songs and even has three solo tunes. While he remains a master of atmospherics on the opener “Come,” the collaborations are a mixed bag. The dream pairing here is with Daryl Hall and Bobby Strickland on “Chance for Us,” with the best Philly soul vocal duo asking, “Is there still a chance for us?/Or does the music die?” Wow. Why did it take so long to get these guys together?
The humorous commentary is always a part of Mr. Rundgren’s arsenal, as on the anti-Trump gem “Tin Foil Hat,” which is aided by Donald Fagen (Steely Dan). The sweet ballad “That Could Have Been Me” with lead vocals by Robyn is another keeper. It’s a case of Rundgren getting the best elements from his collaborators to enhance his songs. With the rock/pop genre, he is a master of this – but when he goes outside his element, like electro-disco on “Naked & Afraid,” it sounds contrived and overly commercial.
The biggest smile crossed my face when I heard “Let’s Do This,” a power pop duet with Moe Berg (The Pursuit of Happiness). Another interesting pairing is with Joe Walsh on “Sleep,” with its plucked guitar chords, strings, and soothing chorus. There is another worthy tune, “Buy My T,” which sounds like a Prince parody, but damn it’s catchy.
Simply put, this is the best Todd Rundgren album in a very long time. Just these tracks I mentioned make up for the rest, which are either overindulgent vanity pieces or simply boring songs. After decades in the music business, veteran musicians tend to either coast on their reputation (like Stevie Wonder) or indulge in personal projects that their fans barely tolerate. It’s rare for that music legend, already venerated, to produce something new that can appeal to the existing fan base (like Ian Hunter). So for you Rundgren fans, it is a definite must buy. Others may want to stick to his various greatest hits packages.
White Knight is available now via Amazon.com.