Sometimes the biggest innovation a vanguard artist can pursue in his music is a rethink of his past.
Such was the case when Todd Rundgren set out to construct his most recent album, Arena. For the better part of his four-decade career, the only seriously predictable aspect of Rundgren's music was its need for change. Since the late '60s split of the post-psychedelic combo The Nazz, Rundgren has explored Beatles-esque pop, Philly-style soul, guitar-driven rock, synthesizer-fused prog rock, a cappella pop, hip-hop, techno and all kinds of video- and computer-related musical advancements along with a tireless sense of song craft.
Then, while on tour with a pickup band in 2007, the notion to revisit — not repeat — one of those past sounds came to him almost by chance.
The current chapter of the ongoing Rundgren saga begins with 2004's album, Liars. The record's abundant lyricism and pop-friendly melodies were in keeping with a songwriter who fashioned major radio hits out of Hello It's Me and I Saw the Light in the early '70s. But the accents of techno and modern keyboard voices didn't make the album seem nostalgic — nor did the storylines of the Liars tunes, nearly all of which reflected a sullen, almost anesthetized post-9/11 world.
"It generally fit into the milieu of delusion that we were all going through after 9/11 and all these trumped-up excuses for why we should go to war," said Rundgren, 60. "The focus of the record was not only about being lied to, but about people's willingness to accept dishonesty.
"We went out and toured for about a year with Liars with a fairly lavish production for the size of the venues we were playing (mostly theaters and large clubs). And at the end of the year, I essentially hadn't made any money."
With his own band on break, Rundgren toured in 2006 with as part of an acoustic bill that included veteran pop composer Joe Jackson and the New York string quartet Ethel. Then in 2007, he teamed with a prog-flavored band led by Tony Levin, the longstanding bassist for Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. Levin's outfit included Rundgren's co-guitarist of nearly 20 years, Jesse Gress. Their focus, during brief tours of Canada and the United States, was to reinforce the role of guitar in Rundgren's music, whether it was with Liars tunes like Soul Brother (which, on record, relied more on keyboards) or performance chestnuts as Black Maria (from Rundgren's 1972 solo breakthrough album, Something/Anything?).
"I hadn't played in Canada in a long time, so I didn't know what to expect," Rundgren said. "But the audiences really liked the guitar-centric presentation. The U.S. audiences seemed to be equally enthusiastic, probably because a lot of them became aware of me back in the '70s, when that was my principal role — as frontman and lead guitar player. So after 35 years of doing other stuff, I guess there was some thirst for that again.
"That's when I decided that the next record I made was going to be guitar-oriented. So this was the musical inspiration for Arena, which is a tribute to '70s-style arena rock, particularly as it relates to the guitar."
But Arena, like Liars, was no retro exercise. Sure, the amped-up guitar sound echoed Rundgren records of previous decades, especially ones cut with the quartet version of his '70s and '80s band Utopia. But the lyrics came out of the same socio-political fabric that triggered Liars.
"Doing Arena, I was trying to figure out what the legacy was going to be for all of this. The politics, mostly, is systematic. Fortunately, most of us realize we've got to move on from that, from dealing with the fear that came after 9/11 and what that did to the psyche of individual Americans."
A tough pop pill to swallow? Perhaps. But Rundgren wants to make sure at least some of his musical medicine goes down and stays down. On his current tour, which stops in Louisville and Covington, he will play Arena in its entirety, with older material at the beginning and end of the performances.
"The whole tenor of the new music already had a kind of an aftertaste of the Bush era when we played it after the election," Rundgren said. "Now that it's post-inauguration and everyone is kind of on a different footing, it will be interesting to see how Arena goes over. On the nights that the audiences respond favorably, you really feel you've dodged a bullet."
Of course, there will be a pronounced difference in how Arena will sound onstage as opposed to on record. The album, like much of Rundgren's studio work of the past four decades, was a one-man band project. Rundgren wrote, produced and played everything. Onstage, it will be brought to life with an ensemble of longtime friends and one newcomer.
Co-guitarist Gress and drummer Prairie Prince have been with Rundgren since the late '80s. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Kasim Sulton, a fellow member of Utopia, has served in Rundgren's bands since the late '70s. Bassist Rachel Haden, daughter of the esteemed jazz bassist Charlie Haden, joined at the onset of the Arena tour.
"When I make my records, I don't ever think, 'Oh, how am I going to get my band to play this?' That has never been a problem. It's great to have that level of confidence and a group of musicians you know you can depend on to play the music the way you want it to be played."
So what's the next the chapter for one of rock 'n' roll's most restless pioneers? Another visitation from Rundgren's pop past wrapped in today's headlines, perhaps?
"I don't know exactly. Liars and Arena, despite being very different records, were pretty close to what I was going for. So I have no complaints there.
"I guess I may run into a wall if I devise some challenge for myself that I can't meet. But I wouldn't let anybody know about it if that happened. I would just fail quietly and then move on to something else."