Utopia

Utopia

Rhino Records, 1982

REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/28/2000

For my first review after a long hiatus (don't ask), I thought it would be time to bring back a much-underappreciated band to "The Daily Vault," since that's part of what this website is all about. In the case of Utopia, you've got a band with an unmistakable leader / songwriter / producer / genius in Todd Rundgren, who has achieved plenty of success on his own, but who attempted to be part of a democratic band process for over a decade in the midst of his most creative solo period. Make no mistake about who wore the pants in this band, though.

So what's it like? Well, many an '80s power-rocker would have loved to have crafted such pure pop masterpieces that grace this album. Take "Bad Little Actress," which boasts an infectious, angular melody and weaves as many acting metaphors as possible into the bitter tale of a love gone bad. "Her performance was outrageous / put me through some changes," "Her delivery / don't come naturally," and "so if you see her give her my critique," for example. "There Goes My Inspiration" is the painting equivalent of "Actress;" "They say that I'm a master of technique / but my style and my sentiment is weak." This pair of tunes can't help but bring tears to anyone's eyes.

And then there's the lighter side of breakup, covered in "Feet Don't Fail Me Now," which one-ups the Beatle imitations Utopia had recently done by being as catchy as virtually anything on A Hard Day's Night. No, really. And while lines like "it feels like my feet have been crazy glued" are a tad clumsy, it's a novelty song that's just serious enough for you to take it as high pop art.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

"Call It What You Will" is in a similar vein, with some soaring harmonies and a quintessential early '80s keyboard-drenched arrangement that still manages to rock with genuine intensity - when Rundgren sings "Love is not the name for that thaaaang" it drowns out even the super-dense production in the background.

"Forgotten But Not Gone" is great too, and features an ever-persistent guitar break that just won't relent. How could you not be moved by a song with the refrain "I'm the invisible man?"

But Utopia isn't all teenage gloom and doom - "Hammer In My Heart" is a raunchy, danceable anthem of infatuation, containing the unforgettable line "It's like a top ten song / you hear it all day long / you try to turn it off, but the beat goes on." A hammer-like pounding drum ensues, just in case the point hadn't already been made. "Princess Of The Universe" suggests strong Freddie Mercury influence as Rundgren frames himself once again as an unworthy suitor.

There's plenty of Rundgren as sensitive-guy on this album too, just to please the old fans. "Neck On Up" proclaims that once "I was a typical man / I had a master plan / I thought that heaven began from the waist on down," but goes on to say "But I found my heaven / she's a perfect eleven / (from the neck on up)." The comparatively-subtle "Chapter and Verse" is the most gripping - OK, the only - song ever to use crossword puzzles and Scrabble letters as a vehicle for a man trying to let his emotional guard down.

So why wasn't this album more of a success? Well, that opens up the larger questions of why Utopia was never quite able to ride on the heels of Rundgren's name to a wider audience - one of those classic unsolved rock and roll mysteries. They certainly tried - evolving from their mid-'70s forays into prog-rock mysticism into a well-oiled power pop machine by the turn of the '80s, they tasted brief top 40 success in early 1980 with "Set Me Free," but instead of following up the album from which that track hailed ( Adventures In Utopia) with a similar one, they took some brilliant but bizarre left turns into mock-Beatle tribute ( Deface The Music) and anti-Reaganomics preaching ( Swing To The Right"), effectively squashing their own momentum before attempting one last time to break into the mainstream.

This 1982 self-titled album represents that attempt, and had it followed Utopia's 1980 success, I still think it would have been a hit, a guilty generation X pleasure along the lines of Bryan Adams' Reckless or Journey's Escape. Say what you will about the cheesiness (in fact, call it what you will!), but that's not bad company. Be sure to buy the version of this disc with the extra five songs ("Chapter" and "Princess" among them) that were originally included on a miniature 7-inch record.

Rating: A-

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© 2000 Mark Feldman and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rhino Records, and is used for informational purposes only.