'm not sure I can pinpoint it, but someplace in "Stood Up," the spry, biting fifth track on Todd Rundgren's new Liars, there's a moment where it hits you what an astonishing talent Liv Tyler's step-dad really is when he gets down to business. With syncopated melodic turns and a pop psychedelia production that pointedly calls to mind his desk-work on XTC's Skylarking, the song is ostensibly about a hot-shot kid learning the lesson of humility, beginning "Ever since, I've been convinced that every/Sacred thought is mine, and you were still/Dragging your knuckles along the ground", before concluding that he's too in love with his own "droning voice" to take the lesson to heart. The modesty may be false, but it's clear he's singing about none other than himself and his own infamous arrogance—the kid whose planet-sized ego once drove The Band's Levon Helm to chase him around the studio with an axe. As such, "Stood Up" is funny, catchy and not a little poignant.
Truth be told, few came with the promise of Todd Rundgren, infamous arrogance and all; having artistically matured in the post-Beatles era when the group's historic disbandment split pop into two separate camps—craft mongers like Badfinger and Eric Carmen versus inspiration boys like The Ramones—Todd Rundgren emerged with the chops and creative impetus to transcend both—to put pieces back together and make pop whole again, as it were. Not only could he play every instrument and sing like Daryl Hall channeling Sam Cooke, he could ape the sensitivity and vulnerability of early hero and lover, Laura Nyro, one minute, before moving onto the power and melodic charge of "Can't Explain"-era Who the next, slathering it all of with the compositional and arranging skills of Frank Zappa as envisaged by Thom Bell or, depending on his mood, Trevor Horn. As implied by the portentous title of his 1972 arrival, Something/Anything, Todd Rundgren's entire persona was always that of the Boy Wonder who could not only do anything, he could do it better than anyone.
Well, almost anything. And almost anyone. The rap on Rundgren has always been that the guy who could write hits like they were Post-It Notes (soul-pop classics like "I Saw the Light" and "Hello It's Me" and sports-arena ubiquity, "Bang the Drum All Day", are but his best-known) was also his own worst enemy. The critical consensus was that he threw it all away on a taste for longwinded prog rock (the shitty American kind), showy technique (ibid, as well as his album of to-the-letter reproductions of favorite 60s songs on 1976's Faithful) and a overarching, unbreakable belief that he could do no wrong - all epitomized by one disastrously subversive performance on Midnight Special in which he appeared dressed as some kind of glam peacock.
Obviously, such a simple narrative doesn't tell the whole story-obsessive talents rarely possess anything approaching a very good business sense—but it does set the stage for the startling return-to-form of Liars nicely. As with every halfway-decent record he's released in the last 25 years, it's being touted as his best since 1978's Hermit of Mink Hollow (in retrospect, a somewhat hollow recreation of his Something/Anything form). And while I'll admit I've lost track in the years since, what with his dreadful "greatest-hits-done-bossa-nova" record and interactive web experiments, I'll go the critical cognoscenti one better: Liars is his best since his masterpiece, 1974's Todd, Rundgren's only record to successfully synthesize his gift for melody, playfulness and blue-eyed soul with his ongoing quest for spiritual fulfillment and meaning.
Until now, that is. Unveiling 14 songs ostensibly about "the paucity of truth," Liars finds Todd Rundgren energized, tackling the subject of personal and sociopolitical dishonesty, but, more interestingly, using the conceptual device as a vehicle for self-reflection. It's not perfect; true to form, there are still the mistakes (the "I-can-do-soul-better-than-you" of "Soul Brother", for instance), the humor still takes a bit of getting used to (as in "Happy Anniversary", which sounds a touch too clever for its own good), and it's sequenced a little funny, with the record's quirkiest tracks stacked near the beginning. But by and large, there's a reason critics and his cult fan base are flocking to this album: it's time-stoppingly good—as unexpected a late-period pop masterpiece as one would be from, say, Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson, even.
From the opening synth pattern of "Truth", Liars exudes an unmistakable sureness of purpose—the song's marriage of Ibiza trance and blue-eyed soul is so natural, it makes you wonder why it took one genre so long for to pop the question to the other. Immediately after comes "Sweet" and its glorious chorus harmonies: "Sing and shout it, tell the world about it/The truth is sweet," showing that Rundgren has lost neither his prodigious melodic sensibility nor that arrestingly feminine voice that made him a dead ringer for Carole King in '72. In such company, goth-metal behemoth, "Mammon", may sound a touch out of place, but winningly so - besides what would a Rundgren record be without one or two goofy, stupid asides? (I'm guessing Hall & Oates' Bigger Than the Both Of Us, to be precise).
However silly "Mammon" might be, the cosmic soul suite of the record's second half more than compensates. "Future" sets a blistering trance backdrop to lyrics expressing disappointment that the world of 2004 doesn't live up to the promise of Kubrick's 2001 ("I'm supposed to drive a flying car/I'm supposed to have a house on Mars"), bringing new meaning to the song's chorus, "the future is now." By contrast, "Past" sets a tale of longing and love that's long since gone to a ghostly, shimmering backdrop that simmers with regret and loneliness ("And my todays are gray, the seconds tick away").
And then there is "Afterlife", quite possibly the best song Rundgren's written in a quarter-century, which finds him finally surfing the cosmic plane he's been after since 1973's A Wizard, A True Star. Always adept at portraying vulnerability (see Runt's "Believe In Me" or countless heartbreaking ballads early in his career), "Afterlife" concerns the ultimate vulnerability—the fear of dying, of leaving everything you've ever known behind as the door to the kingdom of you-know-what opens. Featuring a glistening electronic production that includes a vocoded St. Peter of sorts ("Kiss it all goodbye") Rundgren lets us in on his greatest fear: losing forever the outlet for his restless creativity ("For me there's no eternal rest"). No wonder the guy's always seemed like an overgrown 15 year-old.
The list of remarkable tracks goes on and on: the telling nü soul of "Flaw", the (presumably) anti-Bush screed of the middle-eastern flavored "Liar", and best of all, the hard look in the mirror of "God Said". With its neo-Bacharach-ian chorus, heady sense of atmosphere and endlessly-repeated refrain, "Just get over yourself", "God Said" joins "Afterlife" as one of Liars' most gripping personal moments—not quite bitter, the song, like much of the album, ends up saying a lot more about its author than its subject.
As reassuring it is to hear Rundgren's songsmithery back in action, what is most surprising about Liars is how utterly contemporary it feels. Recorded on a budget in the Hawaiian vacation homes of friends and partly inspired by some raves in Nevada the 55 year-old man checked out, Rundgren's "retro-futurism" (his term) is informed by at least two-plus decades of electronic pop dating from the height of the ZTT era through to electronica and drum n' bass—whether it is the positively Pleasuredome-esque throb of the bass in "God Said", the Oakenfold-isms of "Truth" or "Flaw"'s bump n' grind. I imagine Stephin Merritt is scheming in his island lair at this very moment, perhaps conjuring a song cycle set to the cycle of the moon about George Gershwin's life as voiced by Phil Oakey or Mark E. Smith. He needn't bother.
For all of the record's charms, if the release of "Soul Brother" as a single in England is any indication, his miserable business sense hasn't abandoned him yet (the same goes for the Todd-As-Easter-Bunny cover snap, which is so appallingly bad, it's almost brilliant…almost). But none of that matters. Todd Rundgren may talk a good game about searching for wisdom and truth, but Liars reveals something quite different: a man vibrantly and defiantly confronting the only truth that matters—his own mortality. Let him be judged, I say.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK - APRIL 25 - MAY 1, 2004
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2004-04-26