In this life of strife and complication, it's so nice to occasionally just love something — and man, do I love Todd Rundgren.
The Pennsylvania power-pop savant is best known today for "Hello It's Me," the winsome single that made him a radio staple 45 years ago, with its extremely '70s take on love as a form of friendship rather than ownership — “It’s important to me / That you know you are free.” He originally released “Hello It’s Me” in 1968, with his Nuggets-certified psych-rock outfit Nazz, before re-recording an up-tempo solo version three years later. That one became the biggest hit from Something/Anything?, Rundgren’s artistically untrammeled double LP. The album's pseudo-conceptual structure and sensitivity toward matters of the heart laid the groundwork for the rest of Rundgren’s output, not to mention a wide swath of the decade's pop zeitgeist.
Along with making music, Rundgren was engineering and producing albums for such varied artists as The Band, Hall and Oates, and XTC, establishing his inability to sit still in one musical place for too long. His musical mind is always flitting around, like a hummingbird. He is always remaking and remixing his own work, as well as that of others.
Despite his early success, Rundgren has always been a little bit too far ahead of the curve for his own commercial good. His ’70s solo albums are stuffed to the gills with ideas; he invents or perfects things and then walks right on to the next groove. He could have been king of ’70s soft rock forever, but after "Hello It's Me" crested, he quickly went from power pop to progressive rock. He got way into synths before everyone in rock had synths. With his side group Utopia, he made proggy concept albums about global corporate warfare and love-letter Beatles tributes, and was able to veer into jazz and funk. There is no genre that escapes his interest.
Although never as globally huge as some of his ’70s art-rock peers, like David Bowie, Rundgren is what you might refer to these days as an influencer. He’s a collaborator with a reputation for unlocking new sounds and big ideas in the artists he produces, no matter who they are. Rundgren is credited for discovering the L.A. avant-pop weirdo band Sparks in the late ’60s, producing their first album when they were still called Halfnelson. His 1973 song “International Feel” inspired the name of a heady Ibiza-based electronic music label and a live cover on BBC radio by Australian Nuggets-heads Tame Impala. Rundgren credits the Aussies with reawakening his long-dormant dance music side when they asked him to remix their single “Elephant.” "They were so interested in what I used to do that I started to think I should be more interested in what I used to do as well," he said.
On White Knight, his first solo album in two years, Rundgren bends hard in the direction of his old, familiar love for 808s and synths. Each track on the album is wildly different from the one before — funk, soft rock, kosmische, acid house, and art rock all make appearances. Yet White Knight is united by a persistent thread of electronic squelch and Rundgren’s indomitable knack for a soaring, lovelorn hook. Opening track “Come” starts with synth static that turns into undulating waves of electronic sound. “Time erases all we've made,” Rundgren sings into an apocalyptic tunnel, before the chorus zooms out into the sunlight on a power-pop autobahn.
Naturally, the album finds the frequent collaborator dipping into his Rolodex for a roster of varied guest appearances. Retro-futuristic L.A. funk revivalist Dam-Funk, who toured with Rundgren in 2015, appears on the quiet acid rainstorm “I Got Your Back” alongside Hawaiian SoundCloud producer KKwatson. Old friend Daryl Hall teams up with Rundgren and sax player Bobby Strickland for the bouncy soul stepper “Chance for Us.” “Tin Foil Hat,” a not-at-all-veiled attack on Donald Trump, is a collaboration with Donald Fagen, whose band Steely Dan epitomized the paranoid loucheness of the Nixon era. Rundgren and Fagen share a skill for using laid-back West Coast–jazz tropes to get at apathy, cynicism, and political corrosion. “Tin Foil Hat” is like a jingle for poison.
Perhaps the most surprising invitee to White Knight is Robyn, for whom Rundgren built a melancholy greenhouse called “That Could Have Been Me." Its sparkling synths are sprinklers on Robyn’s floral voice. The inclusion of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, on "Deaf Ears," is less shocking if you know about Reznor’s history of Rundgren fandom. According to Todd, Reznor told him he listens to A Wizard, A True Star once a month — which makes sense, since Rundgren’s one-man-band production style was a major prototype for Reznor — and Rundgren remixed Nine Inch Nails’ “All Time Low” for the bonus edition of 2013's Hesitation Marks. “Deaf Ears” combines wonky synths and atonal bells, as Rundgren intones “It’s raining ashes” like an apocalyptic prayer. In one of the album’s highest highlights, Rundgren gives soul singer Bettye LaVette the chance to throw down over motorik drum machines on “Naked & Afraid,” and it opens up such a great side of LaVette that I hope he produces her next album.
Did I mention the album’s also funny? “Buy My T” is the kind of perfect Dazz Band tribute that Bruno Mars dreams about at night, with a hyper-catchy chorus about how pirating is fine as long as you purchase a souvenir at the show: “You can bootleg the music / But you have to buy a shirt.”
With experimental sounds that still hew tightly to memorable hooks, White Knight is not a comeback album so much as a reintroduction to what Rundgren’s been doing all along. Like his best work, it's got breadth, depth, and a consistent sense of surprise. The chess metaphor in the title isn’t incidental. He’s always thinking five steps ahead.