Todd Rundgren

Liars

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It has been so long since Todd Rundgren has seemed to take his recording career seriously that it's easy to assume that his 2004 album, Liars, would fit right alongside such follies as the awkwardly interactive TR-i or the bossa nova tribute With a Twist, or perhaps that it's merely like the endearingly messy collection of tunes One Long Year. After nearly 15 years of these kinds of releases, it seemed like Rundgren had drifted into the wilderness, where he was more concerned with technology than crafting albums, so it's an utter shock that Liars isn't only a carefully considered, carefully constructed record, but that it's his best pop album in over 20 years. Like any of his best albums, it benefits by having a loose theme or at least an overriding concept that focuses Rundgren. The title makes plain what the theme is, but in case you didn't catch it, Todd spells it out in the liner notes: "All of these songs are about a paucity of truth. At first they may seem to be about other things, but that is just a reflection of how much dishonesty we have accepted in our daily lives." Rundgren is furious about lies, whether they come from the government, religion, family, or entertainment. He's angry that the bright optimistic future he was promised as a kid hasn't arrived, he's angry that all the promises of the '60s have been tattered, he's angry that music he's loved has been cheapened and removed of soul, he's angry and despairing about his country and the world, and that anger has led him to shed some of his musical crutches -- particularly an overindulgence on new technology and a penchant for cuteness -- and deliver a tuneful, visceral, catchy album where even the softer, sweeter songs have heavy themes. Perhaps he decided that the only way his thoughts could be clearly heard is through pop songs both elaborate and simple, but whatever the case, this is the first time he hasn't seemed embarrassed to be writing pop songs since Tortured Artist, but this album has a gravity and urgency that record lacked. He hasn't sounded this engaged or impassioned since The Hermit of Mink Hollow, giving slow, soulful tunes like "Sweet" and "Past" a touchingly bittersweet feel and harder numbers like "Mammon" and "Liar" a visceral, gut-level impact; few angry protest albums have been this catchy. Rundgren has so much to say he lets Liars run long -- longer than A Wizard, a True Star or Todd, actually -- but it's always absorbing and often quite gripping, proof that he not only still retains the ability to surprise, but that he can make an album as provocative and successful as he did during his '70s peak. And that makes Liars one hell of a comeback.

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