October 14, 2008

Album Review: Rundgren Rocks Out on Arena

Todd Rundgren is kind of like a Mensa member who gets inadvertently enrolled in remedial math. His expertise in the studio is so copious and his musical styles so varied that creating a pop or rock record has sometimes made him sound artistically stifled, sporadic, or flat-out bored. While he’s demonstrated time and again that he can dabble in various genres (and often on the same album), his more resonant work has resulted from a cohesive and concentrated approach.

Rundgren does just that on his latest effort, Arena, on which he delivers the kind of streamlined progressive rock suggested by its title. Brazen, swift blasts of electric guitars are ubiquitous, punctuated by meaty riffs and fist-pumping choruses. There’s also a palpable element of cheek at play here—if not downright cockiness—but Rundgren (ever the showman) pulls it off.

As he has wont to do in the past, Rundgren assumes the role of a one-man band, playing every instrument and programming all computerized simulations. To his credit and to the album’s overall advantage, the synthesized aspects don’t overtake or impede the robust velocity of the music. Certainly, on vitriolic tracks like “Mountaintop” and “Strike,” Rundgren wields more power chords than Pro Tools.

He informs much of these songs with pointed lyrics decrying—or at least contemplating—false hope (“Bardo”), resentment (“Mercenary”), and myriad forms of deception. “There’s another crack in the facade,” he sings in “Afraid” while on “Weakness,” he asserts, “I’d be no good to no one/If they knew the truth.” On arguably the album’s most provocative track, “Gun,” Rundgren rails against a deceptive sense of security, savagely lampooning a glorified American gun culture: “The Constitution says that I’m so blessed/That I can clean my piece on the Supreme Court steps…There’s many like it, but this one’s mine/A good replacement for a lack of spine.” He levels his most scathing caricature in the refrain, “You better run/’Cause I’m young, dumb, and I’ve got a gun.”

Even if Arena is but one of Rundgren’s arbitrary sonic experiments, he at least follows it through with focus, consistency, and no shortage of testosterone. In a nutshell, he’s succeeded here with something, which sure beats getting by with anything.