"I want to wrap my arms around the world," Todd Rundgren sings amid a sea of synths on his new album Global. "And dance."
On the surface, getting a party on its feet would seem to be priority one for this veteran pop stylist throughout these new tunes. Global blasts off with enough beats, grooves and electro-enhanced propulsion to ignite any dance floor. Even Flesh & Blood, the album's second song, is a narrative ode to clubbing. But then the party really gets started.
After the oceanic electronica settles in, Global becomes exactly that. The music shifts from world beat to soul balladry to the kind of unabashed pop melodies that have long made Rundgren's music so striking. Lyrically, the record becomes similarly expansive to address themes of climate change, spiritualism and the struggle (or perhaps balance) between isolation and liberation.
Sound a touch heavy? It isn't. Sure, Rundgren is blunt when he chooses, as on Blind, a global warming wake-up call ("God is a scientist; He don't play dice with the universe"). But the lyrics are wrapped in beautifully tempered keyboard orchestration that comes across as a futuristic vision of the blues. Just as fascinatingly textured are the mantra-like countdown to doomsday Rise and the equally apocalyptic Fate.
Such instances, in essence, encapsulate the charm of Rundgren's work. His gift of gab has always been great. But his command of the pop lexicon, and the subsequent ability to create seemingly endless parades of melodic delicacies from it, continues to be greater.
If your lone references to Rundgren's music remain the 1970s hits that once won him radio airplay, then the dance party slant of Global might seem abrupt. But trace his entire recording history (excluding music made with the prog-pop combo Utopia) and you will discover the vast majority of Rundgren's albums have been one-man-band affairs with keyboards being the dominate voice.
The only detriment in the modernization of such a design on Global is the near total absence of guitar. Rundgren has always been a powerful and inventive axeman. Too bad that prowess couldn't have been weaved into Global the way the out-of-nowhere alto sax solo by Bobby Strickland (the only other instrumental contributor on the album) was during Blind.
What we do have, though, is a mountain of expertly constructed tunes, from the girl power salute of Earth Mother to the pop-soul bliss of Soothe to the singular spiritualism within the worldbeat-meets-synth pop charge of Holyland ("no matter where you stand, you're in the holyland"). Again, the messages ring loud and clear. But what you take away long after Global's groove-a-thon is over are the hooks, melodies and lyrical appeal of a master pop craftsman still at the peak of his powers.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic