The Wizard of Mink Hollow closes out the 80s with an underrated classic
Being a serious fan of Todd Rundgren isn’t always an easy path, but it’s a rewarding one. The wunderkind from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania started his musical career out in relatively conventional fashion – as guitarist for late ’60s proto-powerpop band Nazz – but even before he left that group, the depth and wide-encompassing nature of his particular muse was already making itself evident.
There are (and with luck, will continue to be) many artists whose work challenges their listeners, artists who resolutely choose to follow their inspiration wherever it leads them, commercial considerations be damned. For better (and sometimes) worse, the names appearing at the top of that list include Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Prince and David Bowie. Todd Rundgren has long since earned his place among that rarefied company as well.
In the wake of the commercial and critical success of his 1972 double album Something/Anything?, Rundgren confounded his many new fans by crafting the dense and demanding A Wizard/A True Star. At nearly the same time, he launched an even more outré project, Utopia, which drew upon the progressive and fusion sounds of groups like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, plus a heavy does of (by then unfashionable) psychedelia. It was great, heady stuff, but it certainly puzzled fans who appreciated Rundgren’s pure pop songs like “Hello, It’s Me” and “We Gotta Get You a Woman.”
In many ways, that split-personality approach to making music would become a template for Rundgren’s subsequent work. His releases and live projects would veer wildly between highly accessible, tuneful material and grandly ambitious, experimental works. Fans who came along for the ride might not always appreciate his latest work (though time would generally vindicate most of Rundgren’s choices, showing him to be – often as not – ahead of the curve). Yet Rundgren’s creative output was rarely less than compelling.
By the middle of the 1980s, Rundgren had seemingly settled into a role as something of a cult artist. The occasional fluke hit single like 1982’s “Bang the Drum All Day” notwithstanding, his idiosyncratic works generally – but not quite always – earned him critical plaudits and comparatively meager sales. Always keen to pursue cutting-edge technology in the making of his music, he embarked on one of his oddest projects to date: A Cappella. Using the E-mu Emulator as his primary tool, Rundgren filtered his voice through the sampler’s processing unit to create an album in which every single sound – percussion, bass lines, “guitars” and so forth – was the product of his electronically treated voice.
Outlandish for its time, the A Cappella master tape was not welcomed by Rundgren’s label. His relationship with Bearsville Records had deteriorated greatly; from the label’s point of view, Rundgren was a supremely difficult artist who dabbled with uncommercial projects, and siphoned off some of his best material for his group Utopia. From Rundgren’s perspective, it’s likely that he was equally frustrated with what he saw as a resolute lack of support from Bearsville.
Eventually the unhappy marriage ended, and A Cappella came out on Warner Brothers. Critical response ranged from tepid to enthusiastic, and in hinsight the album can be seen as a brave experiment that actually included some of Rundgren’s most ear-catching melodies (most notably the scintillating “Something to Fall Back On”). But it sold poorly, reaching only #128 on Billboard‘s album chart.
In the wake of A Cappella‘s relative lack of success, Rundgren seemed to go to ground. Though he would continue to perform live, his public activities in the period following the release of his Emulator-based album were comparatively few. Utopia threw in the towel in ’86, and Rundgren’s most high-profile activity during that period was working as a musical director for the television program Crime Story. When he finally re-emerged with a new studio album in 1989, the result surprised even long-time followers.
Nearly Human employed an approach that had served Rundgren well. Whereas three of the four sides on the groundbreaking Something/Anything? double LP featured Todd in one-man-band mode, its fourth side – significantly, the one including “Hello It’s Me” – found Rundgren working essentially live in the studio, surrounded by top-notch musicians. And it would be that method that he used to make Nearly Human.
The musicians with whom Rundgren chose to work included Lyle Workman, Brent Bourgeois and Larry Tagg of Bourgeois Tagg; that group’s 1987 hit album Yoyo had been produced by Rundgren. His friend Scott Mathews had been a member of Durocs, an idiosyncratic duo connected to the Tubes, with whom Rundgren had worked extensively. All three of Rundgren’s former Utopia band mates played on the record, as did Tubes drummer (and longtime Rundgren associate) Prairie Prince. And the album featured a host of singers backing Rundgren; among them were E Street Band member Clarence Clemons, soul musician and vocalist Bobby Womack, and Rundgren’s future wife (and former Tubes dancer) Michele Gray.
All of that talent might have added up to relatively little had Rundgren not brought along some of his strongest material. Nearly Human opens in grand style with the soaring, impassioned “The Want of a Nail.” The song’s structure echoes gospel in its call-and-response vocal approach, and features superb lyrics sung in heartfelt fashion. As a single, the song even made an impressive showing: #15 on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
Several of the cuts on Nearly Human have a distinctly Broadway feel to them; that’s due in part to the fact that Rundgren was already at work on his next project, a score for the late Joe Orton’s play Up Against It. While only one song from that production found its way onto Nearly Human – the romantically melancholy “Parallel Lines” – the character of the Up Against It material clearly bled over into to several of the Nearly Human tracks. “Can’t Stop Running” and “The Waiting Game” in particular sport a “big” production/arrangement aesthetic that feels like a stage production with the entire cast contributing.
The song “Feel It” was first featured on The Tubes’ ill-fated Love Bomb. Written by Rundgren and Tubes keyboardist Vince Welnick, “Feel It” received a lush if sonically brittle sheen on the too-slick-by-half Love Bomb; the Nearly Human version with Rundgren (instead of Tubes lead singer Fee Waybill) out front on vocals has a more organic texture, one that serves the song better.
Easily the best track among a collection of very good ones is “Unloved Children.” Rundgren’s writing here is heart-on-sleeve stuff, and the performance combines the power of rock with the feel of soul and the grandeur of musical theater at its best.
Nearly Human made it to #102 on the Billboard album chart; it’s also notable as the last Rundgren release to be issued on vinyl in North America (not counting 21st century limited-edition pressings) until 2017’s White Knight.
The tour in support of Nearly Human showcased Rundgren doing something he had done before (and would do again) to great success: performing new material in a manner consistent with its creation, and re-imagining songs from his deep catalog in the same style. A large onstage ensemble brought the songs to life onstage and drew breathtaking new nuance and power out of Rundgren’s previous works.
Always creatively restless, Rundgren followed up Nearly Human with full immersion into the Up Against It project; many of those songs would appear on 1991’s 2nd Wind, with arrangements that followed closely on from the “big” approach used so successfully on Nearly Human.
Todd being Todd, once 2nd Wind was complete, he headed back into one-man-band territory, making the hip-hop and electronica influenced No World Order, a project was in most every way the opposite of Nearly Human. In fact, No World Order would make the idiosyncrasies of A Capella seem positively tame by comparison.