Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #58 --- Todd Rundgren --- A Wizard, A True Star (1973)

This is about reinvention. This is about not playing safe, moving forward and confounding your audience. The early 70s were full of singers reinventing themselves; on Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell went from confessional folkie to sophisticated jazz ingénue and with On the Beach (part of the so-called “ditch trilogy”), Neil Young left his fans behind by not recording Harvest 2. In the grand tradition of The Beatles’ continuous progression into the unknown, these artists at their peak never made the same record twice. Then, there is Todd; wunderkind musician and boy wonder producer who, by 1972, was an established songwriter and maker of hits. But, Todd didn’t want to go down the boring, MOR route that would have been so easy for him. Instead, he decided to take loads of drugs, buy a moog and venture out into sonic space.
The Todd album that is generally considered to be his best is Something/Anything? recorded just before Wizard, in 1971. Something/Anything? is actually a transitional album, marking the point between his early Laura Nyro- and Carole King-inspired LPs and his mind-expanding excursions of the mid-70s. One can see the next phase of Todd’s career in tracks like “Night the Carousel Burned Down” and the introspective “I Went to the Mirror,” but there was nothing that truly prepared his record buying public for what happened next. Wizard is a mind-blowing sonic barrage of distorted drums, wild guitar, weird electronics and freaky lyrics. It’s an anything-goes record, taking in Hendrix-y rock, Philly-soul and ahead-of-its-time synth noodlings, all cut up in a complex aural montage.  It’s Todd’s greatest achievement, and one of rock’s most ambitious relics.
Wizard kicks off in superb style with a statement of intent: the wall of sound epic “International Feel.” Everything is fully layered here - vocals, guitars, synths - all in a hallucinatory blaze not for the faint of heart. Todd sings of “Interplanetary deals” and “Universal Ideals” over blissful major 9 chords, like a cosmic Buddha fed on a diet of Burt Bacharach records. Over-produced? Probably. Self-Indulgent? Hell, yeah. But, it’s also great fun, and indisputably brilliant.
The extended side-one collage continues with the Disney chestnut “Never, Never Land,” spelling out Todd’s intention to go beyond the usual thing, both in terms of songbook, but also actually living on Earth. It’s a gorgeous, surprising track. Following that, there is a series of short, quirky, goofy prog tunes, quickly segued in a dizzying display of virtuosity. It’s a lot like getting a book thrown at you and trying to read it; you’ll only pick up a few of the nuances on first listen. The highlight of side one is the stellar “Zen Archer,” a perfect summation of where Todd’s head was in ’73. It’s a breathtaking adventure with lush chords, stacked vocals, feedback guitar, Billy Cobham-esque funky drums, sound effects and wailing sax. It’s one of the greatest tracks in the history of prog ‘n’ roll. Side one ends with a reprise of “International Feel,” giving us the impression of a unified suite. The line “Utopia is Here!” is Todd’s literal proclamation of his future.
Side two is seemingly more conventional, being a series of unconnected songs. The eclecticism and experimentation continues, however, with a brace of heartbreaking ballads, a rollicking rocker and even a soul medley, with Todd giving a nod to his heroes Thom Bell and Smokey Robinson. It’s strange sitting in the middle of all this LSD-marinated material, but somehow, the audacity of it works well. The LP ends with one of Todd’s best tracks “Just One Victory,” an uplifting anthem and a splendid finale. When it’s all over, you’ve been on a journey, one which you’ll want to take again and again, as I have.
Patti Smith, in her review in Rolling Stone at the time, wrote “Todd Rundgren is preparing us for a generation of frenzied children who will dream in animation,” which for me captures the feel of this amazing album.

- Ben Sumner

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