A Wizard, A True Star

Review by Brian Smith (Switch to
February 3, 1999

The end of the beginning... or the beginning of the end? Well, in hindsight it's hard not to read a LOT into the lyrics of that opening track, "International Feel": "Here we are again/The start of the end...I only want to see/If you'll give up on me..." It's almost as if Todd was "triple-dog-daring" his newly acquired legion of fans to keep up with him. (It wouldn't be the LAST time...) I can't think of a more dramatic "about face" than the transition from "Something/Anything?" to "Wizard/A True Star"-- the Beach Boys' move from "Pet Sounds" to "Smiley Smile" comes to mind, but the circumstances surrounding THAT album made its release more an act of commercial desperation than an expression of artistic compulsion. Like Brian Wilson, Todd may not have had a clear and coherent vision for the album (which, of course, may have been the point...), but, unlike Brian in the case of "Smile", he had the confidence to see the project through. (Then again, Todd didn't have Cousin Mike to contend with, either!)

While the radicalism of the record was certainly new for Todd, it wasn't exactly new within the realm of popular music. The exploration of sound-as-music exhibited on "Dogfight Giggle" had been touched upon by the Beatles ("Revolution #9"), Pink Floyd, and, it could be argued, the Velvet Underground. The breathtaking stylistic variety, the recurring themes, the contrast between fragments and extended epics, the blending of one song into the next-- these avenues, as well, had been travelled by others (if only in piecemeal fashion), most notably, the Fab Four. What made it groundbreaking was that Todd pulled all of these intriguing notions, approaches, and philosophies TOGETHER, intentionally or not, probably for the first time in rock's brief history. Perhaps most remarkably, he pulled it off largely on his own. Originality is a pretty overvalued commodity, however, and what ultimately makes "AWATS" such a monster, is the QUALITY of the ideas. Critics complain of Todd's diminished songwriting on the album, but to my ears, his musical expertise is not diffused by the unusual strategies. Rather, it is simply applied in a less conspicuous fashion.

Todd has long seen his output as a "work in progress", so to place the album in context, let's briefly recap: On "Runt", there's a reckless "let's see what I can do" vibe; for "Ballad", he hones those songwriting chops-- "Let's see how good a song I can write"; on "S/A?", it was "Let's see if I can do it ALL by myself." Looking back on "AWATS", we can see how he pulls together all of these different lessons, approaches, and fixations, combines his burgeoning production skills, and with a little help from his friend, LSD...VOILA! We find a man deeply in love with song AND sound, and we discover a slightly more linear evolution inside what was, on the surface, coldcocking punctuated equilibrium.

What stands out most notably today is Todd's unmistakably childlike enthusiasm. Sometimes this excitablity manifests itself in outright sloppiness-- the off-key harmonies at the end of "Zen Archer"'s second chorus suggest that he couldn't make up his mind WHICH notes to sing; the "turd-in-a-punchbowl" keyboard flub on "Sometimes I Don't Know What to Feel" suggests that maybe Todd was on acid not just when he wrote it but also when he recorded it. (Unless, of course, Moogy is to blame for that one...) More often, though, Todd finds invigorating, playful expressions of his drug-induced musical dementia-- the percolating keyboards of the instrumentals "Tic Tic Tic It Wears Off" and "Flamingo"; the nosebreathing percussion effect on "You Don't Have to Camp Around." Somebody once told me that the album sounded like "Sesame Street" music. Though intended derisively, I took it as a compliment. From the flitting stylistic disorder to the constantly shifting lyrical perspectives to the ever-present sense of humor and wonder, Todd is clearly enjoying the ride (um, TRIP?) of his life-- Todd is clearly HAVING FUN. Corny as it sounds, "AWATS" gives us an unexpurgated peek at Todd's inner child.

Right around the time of "S/A?", there was a fascinating article in "Rolling Stone" called "The Bizzare Ballad of Todd Rundgren". For those of us who believed that Todd was always the idealistic, principled, "Art for Art's Sake" type, it's very instructive. He comes off as bratty, crass, TOTALLY calculating; and even reveals that, when writing songs, he CONSCIOUSLY tries to appeal to the lowest common denominator, to ensure that they appeal to largest possible audience (which may explain why he holds the record in such disdain nowadays). He also makes endearingly pompous statements, like, "I'm gonna be the Elvis Presley of the Seventies." Sure, Todd.

It's almost as if he was offering "AWATS" as penance for his previous output (and attitudes). Yes, he may have "blown it" with this album, but WHAT a way to end it all! And, for the diminishing faithful, what a way to start phase two of his career. Patti Smith called it "Music for the Skull." And music for the skull it was... AND STILL IS-- with imagination, guts, and balls to spare.

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