CD Review of Arena by Todd Rundgren
Recommended if you like
Utopia, Nazz,
any other artist Todd produced
Hi Fi Recordings
Todd Rundgren: Arena

Reviewed by Jason Thompson


s any fan of Todd Rundgren knows (and by “fan” I mean someone who knows more of the man’s work than just “I Saw the Light,” “Hello, It’s Me” and “Bang the Drum All Day”), experiencing and enjoying the artist’s work is something you’re in for the long haul. Ever since Rundgren first messed about with LSD around 1973 and decided not to keep going on the critically-acclaimed path that he had won with the sweet pop of Something/Anything? in 1972, and instead cranked out ‘74’s A Wizard, A True Star, all bets were off. From then onward, Rundgren was his own artist, doing what he wanted, be it in the group Utopia or on his own. Many albums were balanced out between the sublime and silly, with a number of recordings (Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Initiation, Healing) touching on the spiritual and metaphysical. Todd’s basic massage to everyone through the years has been to be true to yourself. And certainly, no one can claim the guy for didn’t practice what he preached.

Only thing is, it’s made his musical career spotty. Yet the longtime fans know this is just part of his artistic process. I, for one, always loved his venture into techno and rap, No World Order, where plenty of fans and critics felt outright disdainful towards it. On the other hand, I was never big into The Hermit of Mink Hollow, which many folks swear by as a late ‘70s “return to form.” But that’s just the thing: Todd never really goes away, but with each new album he releases, it’s thrown up against that “return to form” measuring stick, when in actuality the guy can’t really be critiqued in such a way. You just have to take each album as it comes and grade it on its own merits and not waste time concerning yourself if it sounds as good as something he released 30 years ago.

So with his new trip Arena ready to go, Todd’s personal vision this time around is one of supplying a soundtrack to something that would basically sound good in an arena setting. Of course it goes deeper than that for Todd, as it always does. Sure, there’s plenty of loud guitars and a basic “band” sound here, with the patented Rundgren production holding it all together, but a cursory glance at the song titles reveal that Todd’s ready to fight in the arena as well. What else to make of such things with names like “Mercenary,” “Gun,” “Courage,” “Weakness,” and “Afraid”? Yes, Todd’s even extended the concept here by giving all 13 tracks here a one-word title.

The opening track “Mad” is killer Todd, with a great chorus, piles of his own vocals sprinkled here and there, and some blistering guitar work. However, one cannot ignore the fact that Todd may be hitting his limit in the vocal department as his voice sounds a bit tired in a couple moments during the song. Maybe that’s the point, but it’s noticeable nonetheless. On the other hand, “Afraid” finds him in silky-smooth mode with the vocals, though the arena rock sound he may be going for here sounds something more akin to the mid- to-late-‘80s more than anything current.

Todd Rundgren

Of course, a lot of fans will enjoy that, but one thing Rundgren has always come against critically at times is his production techniques. For once, I’m going to side with those guys and say that Arena certainly has an odd “old” feel to it that isn’t necessarily a good old feel to it. While Todd has really stuck with the overall organic sound to the work, there’s something really processed sounding about it underneath. This is certainly true in the lumbering “Mercenary,” where his vocals and guitars seem to be overly treated with fuzzy processing.

On the other hand, something like “Courage” sounds like something from the early ‘90s, balancing between high gloss and a bit more of a looser feel. And with “Pissin’” Todd may have finally made his first generic sounding rock tune. Yet that may be exactly what the problem is overall with this album. It sounds like Todd, but it doesn’t feel like Todd. A lot of these songs sound like the sort of thing anyone could have cranked out these days. But maybe Todd’s just at the point where he doesn’t feel he needs to innovate as much these days. After all, the guy decided to take Ric Ocasek’s role in the New Cars, which hardly seemed like the kind of thing Todd would have done at any point in his career, but there you go.

Arena is just an average Todd album. The fans will praise it and Rundgren will undoubtedly have a successful small tour for it. It’s nice to see him still out there doing his thing, but it’s been quite a while since we’ve heard anything truly riveting from him. Granted, I was one of the fans who was really taken in by his last work, Liars, when it originally came out, but hearing it now, it’s hard for me to get excited about. Yet this is all nothing to sweat over too much, as Todd will be back again in a couple years or so with another new album that can be evaluated on its own terms.

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