The Ballad of Todd Rundgren

Review by Brian Smith (Switch to

For his second "solo" album, Todd keeps his already well-established maverick streak surprisingly in check. While it can reasonably be stated that Todd has lowered the bar considerably this time out, what it lacks in innovation, it more than makes up with consistency and beauty. In stark contrast to "Runt", this is probably most focused album of Todd's career. The emphasis is less on "let's see what I can do-- regardless of the outcome" and more on good old-fashioned songwriting. Within that superficially unambitious framework, Todd creates one brilliant song after another. God, I love this album.

Quite a while ago, someone (Lin Sprague, I think) brought up the wayward, long and winding, chord progressions for many of the ballads on "Nazz III". In retrospect, it sounds like he was woodshedding for this album. While it's certainly endearing to hear him stretching the harmonic boundaries on those early songs, they seem, on the whole, rather meandering, self-conscious, and UN-focused. It's almost as if he was trying to achieve the depth, complexity, and richness of the piano on guitar. He apparently realized that the piano was a much more sympathetic vehicle for his muse, though, and on "Ballad", he's able to integrate those tentative first lessons into more natural and inspired song ideas.

And while there may be a dearth of stylistic experimentation, there is certainly no dearth of IDEAS. A song like "Boat on the Charles" may indeed wander, but it does so purposefully. "Long, Flowing Robe" is so damn catchy it appears to have not one, but TWO choruses. There are many "goosebump" moments in Todd's career, but perhaps my all-time favorite is the bit towards the end of "Hope I'm Around", where he sings "You know that I needed you", catapulting the song into a different key. It is a classic merger of inspiration and craft and it chokes me up every time. (Love the drumming on that one, too.) Todd is clearly revelling in the possibilities of songwriting, and his enthusiasm is embedded in every corner of this remarkable album.

Performance-wise, Todd's achilles heel for me has always been his lead vocals, but even that problem is minimized considerably, given the subtle, laid-back nature of most of "Ballad". Todd's fragile tenor is unusually well-suited to the melancholy material.

As if to emphasize to general thesis of the record, Todd closes with "Remember Me"-- a succinct recapitulation of his songwriting and harmonic values. That song and the album as a whole are as simple and "easy" as Todd gets. As much as I, and many others, would love to see Todd regain his appreciation for the "simple things in life" and revisit the part of his muse that created this album, it's never gonna happen. Partly because Todd's "been there, done that" and this album was merely a step in his evolution; but also partly because when records are this good AND this uncommon, then clearly, the simple things are probably NOT as simple or as EASY as they seem.



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