Todd Rundgren’s Space Force a diverse collaboration of a vision

BY XAVIER JOHNSON

With over 50 years in the music industry as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer; Todd Rundgren is back with a new album, Space Force, that shifts the artistic focus from himself to an exploration of previously unfinished works by other artists.

Fresh off being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, Rundgren has been a mainstay in the music world both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. He’s made a career with his brand of classic rock and a prolific list of writing and production credits.

Coming up on 52 years since the release of his first solo studio album Runt, Rundgren continues to be a player in the music industry. It’s rare to get an artist whose career has spanned so long that he has credits for both Meatloaf and Charli XCX.

In many ways, the 74-year-old Rundgren is one of those talents that can be described as “your favorite musician’s favorite musician;” an artist who isn’t a household name but has garnered respect from countless others in the music industry.

Rundgren took the role of a curator on Space Force. The song ideas are a collection of different songs by other artists that he also worked on. Some tracks are the result of the collaboration leading to the final vision of half-finished ideas. This is in line with what Rundgren has consistently done behind the scenes for decades working with artists ranging from The Roots to Bad Religion.

Rundgren noted the creation of this album was the culmination of a variety of disparate collaborations through the years. Interestingly, many seemed to be spur of the moment meetings. “Down With the Ship,” a song with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, was spawned from a backstage meeting at The Tonight Show.

After diving through ideas they settled on an unfinished jam that was based on Dick Tracy. It’s a zany romp with an off-kilter aesthetic that is perfect for Rundgren and Cuomo’s penchant for the strange and unique when it comes to music.

On Space Force, there’s a looseness that’s endearing. There’s not a lot of consistency, but that’s by design. With each song being born out of an unfinished piece, It’s almost like we’re hearing some of the purest representations of an artist’s general work.

What fans hear on the final record is usually a small product of a vast artistic process. Musicians are constantly creating and jamming which leads to a dearth of ideas; some good and some not. There’s a reason superfans collect unreleased B-sides and demos. There’s something pure about hearing a song in that form.

Space Force is a joint operation and that is evident by simply listening to the record. The sound of the album is all over the place. Each song delivers a completely different vibe with the only shared characteristics being a vintage aesthetic with outlandish vocals, quirky synths, and drum and guitar sounds ripped from thirty years ago.

These elements don’t amount to Space Force being a lame pastiche of older rock music. Many of the collaborators, and Rundgren himself, are from that era.

The playlist-like quality of Space Force is in stark contrast to Rundgren’s last studio album White Knight, a rock record that brought on featured artists, but the sounds and musical vision of the record were primarily his. He wrote and produced that record, whereas on Space Force many of the tracks were written, at least partially, before Rundgren came in to help fully realize them.

Musical diversity is Space Force’s greatest strength. It’s hard to get bored listening to it. Even if there’s a particular song or sound that isn’t connecting, the next track may offer something completely different that does hit the right nerve.

©HIROKI NISHIOKA

Sparks is an art rock band that saw its largest prominence in the 70’s and 80’s. The duo is made up of brothers Ron and Russell Mael and their energy bursts on “Your Fandango.” The song was largely finished according to Rundgren with him coming in towards the tail end to help finish some passages.

Being contemporaries, the trio melds effortlessly. The track an excellent classic rock quality that harkens back to a recognizable era of pop music that both Sparks and Rundgren thrived in. The chorus is hypnotic and the bridge is absurd in the best way possible.

Thomas Dolby, the mutli-dimensional musician known for “She Blinded Me With Science” makes an appearance on “I’m Not Your Dog,” a space-age rock tune with a strong bouncy rhythm and a great bass line. It’s one of the two noisier rock anthems on the album next to “STFU,” a collaboration with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen that’s a crushing track that explodes with the help of instrumental and vocal performances fueled by unbridaled aggression.

Steve Vai delivers his brand of soaring guitar work on the closing track “Eco Warrior Goddess.” This prog rock track feels like it could have been ripped straight from the late 80’s with its nonlinear song structure and lightning-fast guitar solos supported by a synth and drum tone that any seasoned prog fan can pick out immediately.

There’s a little something for everyone on Space Force. For some fans this will be a nostalgic trip through an older time in rock and roll, getting to revisit the music of artists they grew up listening to. Even without that nostalgia factor, Space Force is still decent. The unfocused nature does make the album feel like less of a cohesive work and more of a selection of songs to pick and choose which to keep in your rotation, but the talent involved is undeniable.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for the well-informed review. I too am enjoying the eclectic nature of the album which I mapped out in this 2-by-2 matrix: https://labs.blogs.com/space-force.jpg

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