Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars
It has never been easy for Todd Rundgren fans. Between the artist’s attempts to stay relevant and push outside the singer-songwriter elements that made his earlier work so commercially and artistically successful, Rundgren has followed his ever evolving muse down a twisted career path. It has taken him through guitar heavy prog (with Utopia), reveling in his Philly soul roots, a hard-rocking Robert Johnson set of blues covers, experimental soundscapes, and, lately, a vaguely new wave-ish synth based indie pop. To make things even more challenging, after a long stay at Warner Brothers through the ’80s, he has shifted record labels faster than you can say Something/Anything? and has recently been mining his archives for a bewildering set of live releases (six in the past four years, with one being a triple-disc set) taken from various stages of his nearly five-decade career. How those in his cult base can keep up, let alone stick with him, as he genre hops is unclear.
White Knight (or Rundgren version 2017) finds the restless auteur laying down more synth-dominated originals while employing a diverse variety of guests. These range from soul diva Bettye Lavette and pop singer Robyn, to guitar rockers Joe Walsh and Joe Satriani and hip hop impresario Michael Holman, all of whom add vocals and/or instrumentation. The results are, perhaps not surprisingly, all over the place.
On the downside, Rundgren’s reliance on keyboards to replicate drums and bass—and everything else—results in a chilly, metronomic sound that lacks organic, rootsy inspiration. For better or worse, that musical thread stays consistent throughout the 15 tracks, even as the guests bring their own talents to songs that span prog to rock, pop and soul with a smattering of rap.
The opening “Come” sets the tone of the somewhat retro, severely synth, multi-overdubbed approach as Rundgren asks his audience to “come with me” in some sort of ambiguous societal revolution. Things improve when longtime friend Daryl Hall duets with Rundgren on “Chance for Us,” a love song apparently between two men trying to work out their relationship. Unfortunately, slick Kenny G. styled sax is overdubbed at the end of the generally solid track, sending it into schlock-ville. The addition of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and soundtrack buddy Atticus Ross on “Deaf Ears” results in a predictably eerie electronic dystopian performance, with “It’s raining ashes” a repeating motif on the creepy atmospherics. Lavette simply feels out of place on the thumping techno of “Naked and Afraid.” While it’s tempting to give both her and Rundgren props for trying something different, the song never transcends its dense beat underpinnings.
Rundgren goes falsetto on the anti-merch tirade of “Buy My T,” one of the few times a bleak, edgy humor enters the picture as he sings, “That’s a limited edition/will that be cash or charge/push the cotton, we pushin’ cotton.” Along with Donald Fagen’s typically edgy, sardonic tone on his anti-Trump album highlight “Tin Foil Hat” (“He puts Pluto in plutocrat/it’s going to be a yuge yuge yuge new world”), these tracks provide a much needed break from the album’s overall serious tone. After all, this is from a guy who once titled a song “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me.”
It’s far from prime Rundgren and there’s little doubt that most of this would sound better with a full band instead of Rundgren’s “I’ll do it alone and save some money” keyboard dominated music. But once you warm up to the concept, there are enough moments on the eclectic smorgasbord to keep most fans engaged, at least until the next track.