The Truth Hurts
Todd Rundgren Takes Sweet, Sweet Aim at All the Liars

I feel guilty.

I should have mentioned Wonderfalls, the new show put together by Angel producer Tim Minear. I should have tried to get people to watch it, because it was quirky and wonderful and had the makings of something really special. But I kept quiet, thinking that within six episodes or so I could see whether this little show would blossom into something amazing. It certainly could have.

But Fox killed it this weekend, after only four episodes. Three of those ran on Friday nights, in a traditional death slot for new shows, and the final one ran on Thursday opposite The Apprentice. It had no chance. And I’m sure there will be a DVD release eventually, collecting the 13 episodes that were filmed, but of all the shows that premiered this year, Wonderfalls had the best chance of painting on a wider canvas than television normally does. I’d bet that year three would have been incredible.

And now we’ll never know.

If you count Angel, which begins airing its final six episodes next week, then this is two shows that Minear has worked on that have gotten the boot this year. It seems like a concerted effort to wipe out any and all thoughtful television before summer starts. The shame is, I just know Fox is going to replace Wonderfalls with some new reality crapfest like Who Wants to Marry a Big Fat Obnoxious Midget, and even more shamefully, America will watch that one.

* * * * *

I’ve fallen a bit behind in new release news as well, so here are a few upcoming albums I’m jazzed about:

Prince returns on April 20 with Musicology, and what I’ve heard has been fantastic. I hope he never loses this new band he’s formed, especially John Blackwell on drums and Rhonda Smith on bass. It’s the best rhythm section he’s ever had. As far as other new records for April, it’s slim pickings, with only Joe Satriani, Sophie B. Hawkins and an EP from BT capturing any attention at all. I was hoping for the new Tears for Fears album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, but financial troubles at Arista Records have caused that one to be shelved for the time being.

May is not much better, with a new Magnetic Fields on the fourth proving to be the high point so far. We’ll also see records from Peter Salett, Vernon Reid, Lenny Kravitz and Slipknot, as well as the final installment in a trilogy of discs from Pedro the Lion. The new one’s called Achilles Heel. Zipping forward to June, we have the new Joy Electric, Hello Mannequin, on the first. I’ve been lax in reviewing JE in the past, so I promise to get to this one.

June 8 sees an upswing, with Bad Religion’s The Empire Strikes First (I just love typing out that title), Cowboy Junkies’ One Soul Now, PJ Harvey’s Uh Hu Her (taking the prize for year’s worst title so far), Ministry’s Houses of the Mole and Fastball’s return, Keep Your Wig On. The new Wilco, A Ghost is Born, has been pushed back to June 22 so that Jeff Tweedy can finish rehab before the tour. The album does contain two songs that blow past 10 minutes in length, which is always an enticement for me.

And that’s about it for now. Summer release announcements should start cropping up soon, otherwise this is going to be a boring year…

* * * * *

I’d like to think I’d have discovered Todd Rundgren on my own eventually. As it is, though, I owe my vast Rundgren collection entirely to Mike Ferrier.

Mike has always been a computer kid, and for as long as I’ve known him he’s been fascinated by digital animation and computer generated effects. We made a couple of video flicks in high school that gave Mike the chance to show off his skills on his new Commodore Amiga (remember those?), and his immersion in that mighty machine’s graphics capability led him to Todd Rundgren. Or, more specifically, to Todd Rundgren’s video for “Change Myself,” released in 1991 and created on the Amiga. As a Christmas present that year, he bought me 2nd Wind, and a love affair began instantly.

Between me and Todd’s music, not me and Mike, you pervert.

I haven’t seen the “Change Myself” video in more than 10 years now, but I still listen to 2nd Wind, and that album launched me on the path toward collecting every one of Rundgren’s 19 albums, as well as his 10 records with Utopia, as well as numerous live records (including multi-disc live box sets from both Rundgren and Utopia last year). Rundgren is a restless artist, constantly flitting from one style to another, and always seeking out new technology and new ways of communicating his vision. For more than 30 years, he’s been making intelligent, tuneful music, usually with a splash of novelty.

Almost a decade ago, however, Rundgren turned to internet distribution, handing out songs and samples to his dedicated fans via a subscription service called PatroNet. Like most artists who explore this kind of thing, Rundgren started concentrating on singles and studio experiments and stopped making albums. His last full disc of new stuff, The Individualist, came out in 1995, and since then, we’ve feasted on scraps – remix records, live recordings, a best-of done bossa nova style, and a hodgepodge of PatroNet tunes called One Long Year. (That record, admittedly, had some gems, including the hilariously geeky “I Hate My Frickin’ ISP.”) While these were all fun projects, I wrote off the possibility of a whole new Rundgren album years ago.

And of course, just to confound expectation once again, there is now a whole new Rundgren album called Liars, released on Tuesday. If you’ve drifted away from following Todd’s career of late, you need to know this: Liars is not a mix-and-match collection of songs Rundgren had tucked away, it is not a remix project, and it is not another rehash. This is a bona fide new album, 74 minutes long, featuring 14 new songs. And the funniest cover photo you’re likely to see this year.

The good news keeps on coming, too: Liars contains the best group of songs Rundgren has given us since Nearly Human in 1989. With untruth as his theme, Rundgren has delivered some of his sweetest melodies in more than a decade, and used them to convey some of his angriest and most bitter lyrics ever. He rails against governments, religion and bad relationships, pointing out the festering cancer in each one – we rarely tell the truth. We’re all liars.

The album starts with a song called “Truth,” and ends with one called “Liar.” And in between the two extremes, Rundgren searches for veracity and meaning. “I’m gonna find the truth,” he swears at the album’s beginning, but by the end, all he’s uncovered are lies. There are lies of gender, used to keep us apart, in “Happy Anniversary”: “Men are stupid, women are evil, and that’s the way it’s got to be.” There are lies of education and leadership in “Stood Up”: “As soon as I was boss, the next one in line took my head clean off, ‘cause I stood up too fast.” Even music is a lie these days, as he details in “Soul Brother”: “We’re only here to entertain, and just pretend to be in pain… It’s a distraction, I’m told, I use it to hide my total lack of soul…”

The album is neatly subdivided by two central tracks, placed back to back, and titled “Future” and “Past.” In these sad laments, Rundgren notes that the past is gone and the promised future has never arrived. Both are lies, and his narrative voice plainly illustrates what happens if you believe in either one. “Where’s the better world that was declared at the 1964 World’s Fair?” he asks, and later admits that “my todays are gray, the seconds tick away.”

Naturally, Rundgren saves his most savage attacks for the realms of political and religious manipulation. Todd is a die-hard empiricist, refusing to believe in anything he cannot physically prove, and he holds those who dedicate their lives to any faith in contempt. He takes aim at greedy religions in “Mammon,” and then goes so far as to take up the voice of God on “God Said,” only to have the supreme being deny his own existence.

Quite a funny paradox in that song – he seems to be saying that believers will only accept that God does not exist if he tells them so personally, but by the very act of doing so, he’d be proving that he exists. Still, it’s a magnificent song, effectively using God’s voice to recommend personal responsibility: “I don’t dwell upon you, I dwell on something else, and I am not really here, so get over yourself,” he says, and then delivers the capper with “You will kill in my name and heaven knows what else, when you can’t prove I exist…”

“Liar” is the most incendiary track here, so naturally it closes the record. Its lyrics are evenly divided, with one half ripping on Islamic terrorist manipulators and the other on American arrogance, and both targets receiving a screaming repetition of the title phrase. “And with every lying breath, you send them to their death,” he spits, savaging both us and them equally. It’s the first time I have seen anyone equate America’s lies with Al Qaeda’s, and it’s certainly bold.

Given the piss and venom that pulses through these lyrics, you’ll probably be surprised by the insanely tuneful music. The best way I have found to describe the album’s sound is this: imagine Hall and Oates meeting the Chemical Brothers. And even that doesn’t quite do it. The album is full of whirring techno drums and plastic bass lines, but the songs (with a couple of exceptions) are all blue-eyed soul workouts. Rundgren played virtually all the instruments himself, using a computerized composition program, and though the result is almost completely synthetic, his warm and wide vocals add more than enough humanity to the proceedings. Just check out his soulful turn on “Afterlife.”

There’s a layer of (likely unintended) irony to the sound as well. The synth voices are all meant to emulate drums, bass guitars, pianos and strings, even though none of them quite get there. So in a way, every instrument on the album is lying to you, hence enhancing the theme. You would be forgiven for thinking that 74 minutes of synthesized pop might seem like a chore to sit through, but this is an extremely quick 74 minutes, vaulted along by Rundgren’s unceasing sense of melody and harmony. It may have been improved by real instruments, no doubt, and I would like to hear a live run-through of this record at some point, but even as it is, this is quite the Todd Rundgren album.

And even with all the anger on display, Rundgren keeps his sense of humor and never lets the album tumble into didactic moralizing. And hey, if Rundgren can slip his observations about truth and manipulation into the public consciousness coated in sugary harmony, then more power to him. After more than a decade away, Todd Rundgren has racked one in the win column with Liars, an idiosyncratic and uncompromising artistic and political statement cleverly disguised as one hell of a pop record.

* * * * *

Those sick of hearing about Marillion from me may want to steer clear of this column for the next few weeks. I’m taking some time to explore the history and future of this band, including reviews of their new one, Marbles, and the latest from their former frontman Fish, Field of Crows. I’m starting with Fish next week, mostly because I don’t have Marbles yet – the pre-order edition has been shipped from England but has not yet arrived on these shores. Next week, though, for certain, I will get my hands on it.

For the time being, I’m salivating over pictures of the pre-order package, posted online by one of the chaps from the Marillion message board. Want a look? Okay, go here.

Pretty, isn’t it?

See you in line Tuesday morning.