Rundgren is on the road behind his new album Arena, and early reports peg it as a guitar-heavy rock album, rather than another stylistic detour (such as the bossa nova album he was promoting at the time of his '98 Barrymore performance). The former Nazz & Utopia member (and New Cars, though we won't hold it against him) maintains a devoted following despite being largely absent from the pop charts since the '70s. The Barrymore has posted a press release about the new album on their website:
"This is sing-along, guitar-rock kinda stuff," says Todd Rundgren of his aptly-titled 20th solo album, Arena. True to its name, it's fist-pumping, anthemic, cerebral, uh, edifying ... arena rock.
Is that your oxymoron detector bleating like Miley Cyrus? Understandable. Arena rock, by definition, is simple, lowest-common-denominator - but not always bad - music, and Todd Rundgren, while quite handy with a hook and a huge crowd, is anything but simple. Though the multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/producer played his share of widdly-woo lead guitar with the storied late-1960s garage-psych band Nazz, crafted expansive anthems and played arenas with Utopia through the 1970s and early 1980s, and further perfected the pop nugget in his solo work (he's the maestro behind the gems "Hello, It's Me," "I Saw the Light" and "Can We Still Be Friends?"), there has always been a thrumming intellectual through-line to his music. This has manifested in progressive rock tendencies and in heady quote-unquote concepts. Its accessible, dare we say party, vibe notwithstanding, so it is with Arena.
Rundgren broke a self-imposed 10-year hiatus on concept albums in 2004 with the universally lauded 2004 album Liars, which examined the sincerity-to-deceit ratio in ourselves and our lives. Arena runs parallel to this, scrutinizing courage and cowardice, and how we respond to daily challenges. "We are challenged," says Rundgren from his home on the island of Kauai, "to make decisions that reflect our bravery and daring and fortitude or [laughs] reflect our cowardice and our paranoia and our inability to unify and get things done." This topical existentialism is couched in bombastic though intellectually loaded rock n' roll - a fitting soundtrack of these times.
If it sounds like political polemics, it is and it ain't. While the state of the world and, more specifically, our country, is a constant muse, Rundgren casts a wider net, not simply indicting an administration but taking us to task for our response to political situations. "So in that sense," he says, "it is a polemical… but it's about a completely different subject matter. When I take on something that's as "formy," and possibly egg-headed, as a specific area of human behavior, I try not to take a direct route to the conclusion because I don't have the expectation that everyone thinks about it like I do."
When the touring cycle for Liars, and his stint with The New Cars, wound down, Rundgren commenced an "insular process" of contemplating and conceptualizing Arena. He began where he left off, with the thematic germ that birthed Liars. "It was quite obvious that we were dealing with, not simply a government, but a whole culture of dishonesty. The way that people were happy to be lied to about something that was so obviously false, just made me think, 'Okay, this is right', because nobody's paying attention to how much they're fabricating and how much fabrication they accept. "But it wasn't as obvious what had gotten us into that situation, and that was our ability and our willingness to be riled up over something, and to saber-rattle and to rush in and take prisoners - or take no prisoners, as the case may be - and that this was as pervasive an aspect of human behavior as dishonesty. And it possibly has a deeper root - our fears often cause us to be dishonest. So our unwillingness to confront our fears is in a way a larger character flaw than our fudging with the truth."
Arena follows an arc in a literate, electric sense. Opener "Mad" sets an intense tone, exploding from ethereal verses and guitar arpeggios into meaty power chords and strutting Paul Rodgers vocals. Lyrically, it's two pronged: Rundgren is being critical and motivational as he tells the listener "You ain't seen me mad yet/now I'm maaaaaaad!""Some people won't go into action without some sort of emotional impetus-and it's often anger. You could say that's what got us into Iraq: an irrational national anger about 9/11 that blinded everyone to the fact that Iraq didn't have anything to do with it. As a country, we were so pissed off that we were willing to just take on anybody."
The meditative "Afraid" examines the moment of doubt before taking dramatic action-and learning the impetus. It's a fitting segue to the driving indictment of war by proxy, "Mercenary," which is about how "the Iraq War was contracted out to somebody else, whose perspective and rules and agenda may have been completely different. It's the concept of being brave for money, and if that's what it requires, then it becomes ... a national shame." "
Gun," a throbbing rocker which pits Rundgren's hallmark 'chorus of himself' vocals with wailing guitar - a metaphor for brandishing a weapon. The Chicago-bluesy "Weakness" examines dominant-submissive relationships, or at least what causes us to be intimidated and thereby operated by someone else. The time-is-now corker "Strike" unashamedly borrows from the blues-rock stomp of AC/DC - and features Rundgren doing his best Brian Johnson yowl. "People talk about change," says Rundgren, "but often do not apply themselves to making that happen. Often, the opportunities for that are limited - unless you take advantage of them, you're not going to improve your situation. And inasmuch as doing things out of anger or fear or any other less admirable emotions, still sometimes there is only one right time for something to happen."
Henceforth, Arena continues a tug of war between inaction and action, indecision and resolve. "Pissin'" attacks the false sense of authority and cocksure, unilateral action. The breakbeat-trance rock of "Today" again calls for chains to break, to settle scores and "wake up even." "Bardo," named for the Buddhist principle of transition, occupies a Floydian plane where epiphanies are revealed. "Sometimes during your existence, you're going to have to confront something that perhaps you've been avoiding your entire life. But nothing in your life will change until you do confront that thing."
Aptly, the placid epiphany "Courage" follows, and runs into the towering mid-tempo boogie of "Mountaintop" then it's game on 'til "Panic," a headlong call to keep your cool, ensues. Finally you're forced to "Manup," get off your ass and stop letting someone else do your dirty work. "Again, the whole Iraq War thing was driven by a bunch of people who never had any military service, who had no concept at all of what it was like to be in battle. They just had a whole lot of ... lip."
Rundgren explains his musical approach was inspired by his tenure fronting The New Cars, the rebuilt version of household name classic rock/new wave 'tweeners The Cars, and the guitar-centric touring band he put together when that project prematurely fizzled due to guitarist Elliot Easton's broken collarbone. "I had to find something for myself to do," he says, "kind of at the last minute." He rallied Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton and drummer Prairie Prince, plus guitarist Jesse Gress, and started playing shows that, due to the guitar orientation, had the energy of arena rock shows. The fans ate it up.
"I was doing what I used to do when I was in Utopia: playing a lot of guitar solos and runnin' around the stage. And this seemed to tap into something ... people were happy and reminiscent and totally satisfied if I was flailing away at a guitar and screaming at the top of my lungs or playing "Hello It's Me" and "Can We Still Be Friends?" So that kind of guided me to the '70s style arena rock approach."
Arena - which Rundgren wrote, performed, produced, engineered, mixed and designed himself - was recorded entirely on Rundgren's laptop in a linen closet in his former home and the bedroom of his new eco/smart house in Hawaii. It's an interesting, but not atypical, move for the noted producer (Meat Loaf, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, XTC, Grand Funk Railroad), also a notorious techie (he developed PatroNet, the very first subscription music service, in the early '90s). "I'm done with all the big, clunky equipment now," he says. "It's a pain in the ass to keep it working and it's expensive. I have everything that I need in a minimum of hardware and software."
Prior to Arena's release, Rundgren and his latest band - Prince, bass player Rachel Haden, guitarist/keyboardist Matt Bolton, and guitarist Jesse Gress - staged a special performance for invited guests at his newly constructed home. It served as his 60th birthday party, a house blessing, and dress rehearsal for a U.S. tour that runs through August 2. "The new songs will be pretty much the meat of the show. I've been starting with material from this past decade anyway; I haven't been doing the oldies kind of thing for a while, since I started doing this more guitar-oriented presentation. So um ... we're gonna wait and see, I guess."
A live DVD will be culled from the July 14 show at the Boulder Theater (also being shot for an HDNet concert special), which will eventually be bundled with the brick and mortar release of Arena, along with a live CD and an EP consisting of a tribute to the late blues great, Robert Johnson. But for now, Rundgren is content to witness the upshot of Arena, which will initially be an exclusively digital release. "I'm hoping when people listen to the record that their first reaction is, 'Wow, this is fun.' While there are still lots of bands that play guitars, they don't necessarily do that kind of music that much anymore. And the message will penetrate to whatever level it's able [laughs]. It may only be skin deep for some people, but it may actually give them the fortitude to do something that they've always been apprehensive about or afraid to do. If it has any worth beyond entertainment, that's hopefully what it is."
Rundgren joins a wide-ranging slate of new announcements from Frank, including the return of Madison expatriates Locksley on October 10 (Barrymore); the polyrhythmic roots music of Rusted Root on November 10 (Barrymore) and the Savatage-does-Christmas behemoth Trans-Siberian Orchestra on December 11 (Kohl Center).