A Wizard / A True Star

Todd Rundgren

Bearsville Records, 1973

REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/21/1999

Like the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk or U2's Zooropa, Todd Rundgren's A Wizard / A True Star is one of those abrupt-left-turn records that the geniuses of the rock and roll era who get the commercial recognition they deserve make as long-anticipated "follow-ups," challenging their devoted listeners further, and turning their bandwagon fans away almost as quickly as they latched on in the first place.

In Rundgren's case, this perennially-overlooked songwriter/producer was coming off the lone mainstream success of his now-30-year career, the 1972 double album Something / Anything, which harnessed his promising synthesis of blue-eyed soul and psychedelic experimentation into some of the most irresistible pure pop ever recorded, among it the deservedly-smash hits "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light." So what to do for an encore? Well, I wouldn't have done what he did, but in 1973 I was a mere toddler, whereas Rundgren was about to become the odd, unpredictable musical force of the '70s that still knows no equal.

The gatefold is an attractive piece of album art in itself, featuring lyrics and notes in Todd's informal scrawl. He tells the owner of the record to "crank up your victrola as loud as it will go to get the full enjoyment contained in this here LP." Doing so undoubtedly caused many to recoil in horror and cry out something to the effect of "What the devil is he doing?!" in perhaps less than G-rated language.

The dissonant plane taking off that launches into the leadoff track "International Feel" immediately signals that this is not Something / Anything, Part 2: Electric Boogaloo. It's a rough, pounding track, that lasts only a couple minutes, and then segues awkwardly into a version of "Never Never Land" from "Peter Pan" drenched in vintage analog feedback. Huh?my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Side one continues much in this fashion - the songs are mostly fairly short, there's hardly a break, and our Wizard jumps all over the place, from vicious hard rock ("You Need Your Head") to twisted faux-showtunes ("Just Another Onionhead / Da Da Dali") to indulgent synthesizer-lab noises ("Flamingo," "Dogfight Giggle"). Only "Zen Archer" is a full-fledged song, and it's a sprawling, morbid ballad about pretty things dying. Side two is more traditional, but nearly half of it is a medley of rather unnecessary (and extremely indulgent) tips of the hat to some of Rundgren's favorite Motown songs.

But after the initial shock wears off, and after you've listened to Something / Anything a few more dozen times, you come back to this album to give it another chance, and like the aforementioned classic abrupt-left-turn albums, this one grows on you like the true work of genius it is. How does this happen? Well, the mish-mash of side one starts to make a little more sense; it's in fact Rundgren's own idea of a musical melting pot, sort of like the Who's The Who Sell Out or Frank Zappa's We're Only In It For The Money in its ability to rope you in with sheer variety and unpredictability.

The segues are almost as important as the songs themselves - the wild gurgling of "Dogfight Giggle" cuts to the smooth, jazzy "You Don't Have to Camp Around." The desperate fade out of "Zen Archer" turns into the comical "Just Another Onionhead." The syrupy "Never Never Land" gets interrupted by the syrupy instrumental "Tic Tic Tic It Wears Off." And the ear-candy-like seventh and diminished chords of Rundgren's earlier work is still here, just in slightly disguised form.

Side two, though not as ambitious (or as good) as side one, should not go unnoticed either. The well-crafted Philly soul of "Sometimes I Don't Know What To Feel" leads it off. Then "Does Anybody Love You" sneaks in - it's one of those cute little songs, (other examples are "Izzat Love" from 1974's Todd and "Onomatopoeia" from 1978's Hermit Of Mink Hollow) that Rundgren always throws in the middle of his albums, songs you imagine he could write in his sleep, yet still turn out to be wonderfully simple and catchy.

That god-awful Motown medley comes next, but fortunately it gets redeemed, by the breakneck cry against rejection "Is it My Name?" which you would swear was punk if it weren't 1973, and then by the uplifting "Just One Victory," which would be a staple of his concerts for years and the only track from this album to get any sort of radio play.

This is not the best album with which to initiate new listeners into the Rundgren canon. But eventually it becomes the sort of album you need to listen to over and over again, to discover all the nuances, to know it so well that you can amuse yourself by playing it back in your head. It remains the perfect compromise between Rundgren's accessible pop and his even-further-out-there experiments on some of his work of the mid-'70s. And while it does get tedious from time to time, such is the price to pay for listening to the work of a wizard.

Rating: B+

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© 1999 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 Bearsville Records, and is used for informational purposes only.