Todd Rundgren: Space Force [Album Review]

Todd Rundgren
Space Force
Cleopatra Records [2022]

Fifty two years into a career that includes more than twenty solo studio albums, another ten with the band Utopia, plus production credits on albums by the Grand Funk Railroad, The Tubes, New York Dolls, Psychedelic Furs, and Meatloaf’s mega-selling multiplatinum Bat Out of Hell, among others, plus a tour with a post-Ocasek Cars, and currently touring with Adrian Belew performing an all-star tribute to the music of David Bowie, Todd Rundgren can pretty much do whatever he wants. And usually he does. When finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year largely at the behest of his long-suffering fans, Rundgren came close to pulling a Sex Pistols-like rejection, ignoring the auspicious proceedings, leaving the producer of the online version of the Award show to pull an excerpt from a graduation speech where he offered the standard disclaimer, “if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve.”

So, here on his 24th album under his own name, Rundgren takes the direction of his 2017 duets album, White Knight, to the next level. On that record, Rundgren wrote most all of the music with collaborators in mind, and then invited them to sing and play with him on the tracks. It worked well much of the time, especially on the single “Tin Foil Hat,” written in the style of Steely Dan with guest Donald Fagen. Upping the ante for Space Force, Rundgren approached a variety of artist, some he’d worked with previously and others he’d hoped to work with, and asked them to contribute a piece of unfinished music or recording that they’d laid aside for one reason or another, offering to complete it and bring the duet to completion. The result is stylistically diverse, but with Todd, who described his role as “curator and producer” as well as performer, the album’s 12 tracks hang together fairly well, often pointing to different periods and styles in Rundgren’s long and varied musical explorations.

The two tracks released earlier this year prior to the album, “Down With the Ship” with Rivers Cuomo of Weezer and “Your Fandango” with the band Sparks, play into Rundgren’s wacky novelty song imagination which can be heard in sports’ arenas world-wide in the song “Bang on a Drum.” The first is a retro rock ‘n’ reggae take on the Davey Jones’ theme, while the second rekindles a connection with Sparks’ Mael brothers, since Rundgren produced their debut album in ’71. This song plays toward the band’s mix on pseudo-classical opera with pop, something Queen borrowed,” while Rundgren does his production magic.

Of course, while some fans of Rundgren would focus on his hard rock and crunchy power pop leanings, he’s always generated most of his radio airplay hit singles with ballads like “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me,” so while I hoped and expected something different when he teamed up with Adrian Belew, their song “Puzzle” flows out of the softer side of these two. Similarly, “Artist In Residence” with Neil Finn of Crowded House and of late with Fleetwood Mac, leans heavily in that direction, with lovely keyboards and an airy feel, which also flows through light R&B feel of “Head In the Ocean,” with English artist Alfie Templeman. “I’m Leaving” with The Lemon Twigs pulls Rungren back to the kind of fun, quirky pop that dominated on classic albums like A Wizard, A True Star, while “I’m Not Your Dog” with Thomas Dolby has couple of smart electro-pop moves that push Rundgren into fresh territory to good effect. “Someday” with Aussie Davey Lane feels like something that perhaps should have been discarded with its rather predictable verses, even though Rundgren seems to embellish a couple rich, instrumental bridge transitions.

The collaboration with fellow-Philadelphia natives The Roots on “Godiva Girl” returns Rundgren to his roots in soul and R&B, while Iraqi-Canadian rapper Narcy pushes Rundgren into hip-hop territory, much like his explorations on 2013’s State, while the jazzy flute solo and the song’s rhythms point toward Middle Eastern influences. From the title of “STFU,” you can guess that Rungren’s guitar rock romp with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen is NSFW, but that’s okay because you’re going to want to play it too loud for the office anyway. Meanwhile, the set closing “Eco Warrior Goddess,” with the album’s remaining rock guitar hero Steve Vai, Rundgren taps the progressive leanings of his early work with Utopia. Of course, Vai demonstrates some of the highspeed fretboard slicing and dicing that sets him apart from the pack of guitar gurus, but Rundgren’s progressive setting adds to the overall impact.

Given the diverse participants, Space Force feels like something quite different than a Todd Rundgren album, but it certainly fulfills his goal to collaborate with a wide array of artists and exhibit his production skills. Hard core fans are going to hope for something that is more of an artist statement, but given that Rundgren has been touring with Daryl Hall’s House Band, both as opening act and lead guitarist, along with the Bowie tour, who knows how long it will be before he returns to the studio. There’s plenty of good music with Todd’s stamp on it here to hold us over in the meantime.

“Your Fandango” / “STFU” / “Espionage”

David Bowie / Daryl Hall / Adrian Belew

White Night (2017) / State (2013)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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