Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Todd Rundgren’s last two albums have been released in election years. But Todd is Godd, after all, so I have to assume there’s some sort of divine plan. Liars came out in 2004 as the world was learning that the United States had invaded Iraq the previous year under false pretenses. Arena (Hi Fi Recordings) arrives on September 30, and even though Rundgren has said that the title comes from his new batch of songs being guitar-fronted stadium-rock numbers, it’s clear that his thoughts haven’t strayed far from the political arena. (“Mercenary,” for instance, which sounds like a collaboration between Nine Inch Nails and Boston, takes on the war in Iraq: “I will lay a foe to waste / For a grudge I’ve never had … / I will bring a nation down / For a cause I’ll never have.”) In the liner notes for Liars, Rundgren wrote, “At first [these songs] may seem to be about other things, but that is just a reflection of how much dishonesty we have accepted in our daily lives.” Though both albums often mask his political opinions with themes like seeking out the truth in our everyday lives and owning up to our responsibilities as human beings, it’s a thin veil that covers them.
Arena hits harder than Liars, though I prefer Liars in the long run, and I do mean long — its message was diluted by its 74-minute running time, a problem that’s alleviated to a degree by Arena‘s 56-minute span. But Rundgren fans’ yes-or-no vote on Arena may ultimately depend on which of the artist’s personas they prefer most: If you like Todd the sensitive soft rocker or Todd the blue-eyed soul man, you’ll only find a little bit of the former on “Courage” (which would’ve fit comfortably on 1976’s Faithful) and some of the latter on the chorus of “Weakness.” But if Todd the guitar hero or Todd the benevolent ruler of Utopia are more to your liking, then Arena might be the one political statement you appreciate the most this fall. Liars was meditative and reflective, but Arena is a thunderous call to arms.
Well, metaphorically anyway. There’s some irony in Rundgren writing a song like “Gun” — “The Constitution says that I’m so blessed / That I can clean my piece on the Supreme Court steps … / There’s many like it, yeah but this one’s mine / A good replacement for a lack of spine” — since he acts as an army of one on his new album, playing every instrument and singing every vocal track. He’s been doing this since the early ’70s, of course, but digital technology and personal computers presumably make it easier for studio rats like Rundgren to achieve their goals. Thematically it makes sense for Arena to be a truly solo project — Rundgren is saying that you have to change yourself before you can change the world and galvanize the masses — but Arena would make more of a sonic impact if he had recorded it with a full band. Of course, when he does his best impression of AC/DC’s entire lineup on “Strike,” it hardly matters.
On 1973’s A Wizard, a True Star, Rundgren asked that the powers that be, earthbound or otherwise, give him “Just One Victory.” Thirty-five years later, as the U.S. nears the end of another president’s term of office that’s been overshadowed by corruption and lies, he’s no longer interested in waiting for gifts to fall from the sky. Now, with songs like “Manup” (“What you will not defend / Somebody else will end up takin'”) and “Afraid” (“Why suffer for nothing? / Suffer for something”), he’s ready to take action.
Arena is available at Amazon.com.