Listen Up, World: Rundgren Talking
Todd Rundgren’s latest album, White Knight, begins with a long period of silence, leading into a machine-like swell, then finally proceeding into the bulk of the song “Come,” introduced by the synth and layering, with Rundgren’s vocals coming in close to halfway through this opening track. While it’s an emotional track (once things get going), it feels as though it belongs at the end of the album rather than as an opener; and the closing track, “This Is Not a Drill,” doesn’t sound like the end of the project. “Come” is also one of only three tracks — of the 15 total — that doesn’t contain any featured artists. “I Got Your Back” benefits greatly from the feature of producer Dam-Funk, and it’s a noticeable change of feel from the previous track, especially given KK Watson’s rap verse. By the time the simple four-on-the-floor and hi-hat groove comes in, it makes for perfect nighttime driving music.
“Chance for Us” is at home in a cheesy ’80s movie, and fittingly so; it has a subtle hint of optimism and the addition of featured vocalist Daryl Hall — as well as Bobby Strickland — helps make it seem casually heartfelt (something Hall and John Oates do oh so well). Its easy-going nature also brings to mind a relaxing Saturday night with friends – hard not to like. “Fiction” comes in next, the second of three Rundgren solo tracks, beginning with a semi-robotic-sounding synth and supported by a forward-moving electronic drum groove. Rundgren sings about the difficulty of figuring out the truth in this day and age, as it seems that just about everything is “fiction.” His vocals atop the pulsing drum beat and space-like synth (during the chorus) make this song sound determined and driving – a slightly more dramatic follow-up to the previous track.
His commentary on the world’s current situation (American politics, for example) becomes evident at the start of “Beginning (Of the End),” a relatively simple waltz that showcases lyrics commenting on our impending doom. He and John Boutte ask why angels are never there when they are needed most, lament on the complete reversal of progress with the new leader of the U.S., and recognize that something needs to be done to salvage our country (and others’). But perhaps even more explicit is the Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) feature in “Tin Foil Hat,” which very clearly throws shade at a different Donald – the one in charge of our country *grits teeth.* It attracts the listeners with some vibraphone chords before the groove sets in, and quickly jumps into commenting on Trump. If one had to pick but one song to listen to from this album, go with “Tin Foil Hat” to get a nice chuckle at the upbeat tune’s slanders.
Next is probably the strangest track, entitled “Look at Me,” featuring Michael Holman, which sounds like a recording of a protest (complete with a wild crowd droning the entire time), and comments on the fact that those who take the podium want little else besides attention. It’s not a particularly enjoyable listen, but a suitable track to come after “Tin Foil Hat.” “Let’s Do This” opens strongly and sounds like it could be a song by The Who, although the vocals from Rundgren and Moe Berg are considerably quieter in relation to the instruments than those featured on any of the previous songs, almost as if they were recorded from farther away or on a phone. It has a nice drive to it, but finds itself as one of the weaker songs on the album.
The best guitar riff on the album is that of “Sleep,” featuring Joe Walsh. That alone has a hopeful yet pensive sound to it, and is one that’s hard to tarnish — that is, until the pizzicato (plucked) strings come in a little after halfway and (a) don’t augment the sound of the song and (b) are noticeably out of tune with the guitar, sending cringes to listeners. A detail only an avid musician might notice? Maybe. But it certainly gets in the way for the duration of its short-lived time on the track. The synthesizer-touched “That Could Have Been Me” sounds more like a bedtime lullaby than “Sleep” does, but the mood changes slightly when singer Robyn comes in; at that point it sounds like a fitting song for a slow-dance at prom with an oddly comforting nostalgia to it in which a tear and a smile would not be out of place.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross appear on the next track “Deaf Ears,” which is essentially a lament about the world we are currently living in (not the first one of these), distorted by an assortment of metallic and ambient sounds. It sounds like something one would hear over a distant loud speaker in the morning after some catastrophic event, perhaps an apocalypse or a natural disaster — certainly a peculiar song. “Naked & Afraid” is probably the most electronic track on the album, and it pushes the idea that there is no middle ground. Featured vocalist Betty Lavette preaches of the consequences of thoughtless actions, perhaps yet another jab at our current president. Musically it’s not one of the best tracks, but Rundgren is clearly going for a lyrical message with this album as opposed to a musical boast.
“Buy My T” has one of the best intros of the project, featuring no other artists but tasty rhythm guitar and Prince-influenced synths. In a world where music streaming and pirating are incredibly prevalent, very few people actually buy music, causing concerts/shows to become the only reliable source of income for artists. Rundgren tells his listeners in a robotic manner that, sure, you can “bootleg the music, but you have to buy a shirt.” In other words, “please support us somehow.” Second, after “Sleep,” for best guitar lick is “Wouldn’t You Like to Know,” a tune that features Rundgren’s son Rebop, and one that shares the struggle of people who feel like the truth is being hidden from them. It’s a sad song, but one that informs its listeners that ignorance is in fact bliss (the opening lyric of the song); maybe the agents from The X-Files should hear this one.
The closer, “This Is Not a Drill,” feels misplaced as the final number. Numerous other tracks from this album would surely have made for a stronger ending track, including the opener. This song — featuring Joe Satriani, Kasim Sulton, and Prairie Prince — is not bad by any means, but its placement feels so incorrect and distracting that it detracts from its ability to be enjoyed.
Overall, White Knight is a good album musically, but an even better album lyrically. It’s always nice to be reminded that artists who’ve been around for a while can still release solid projects.