The 2016 U.S. election inspired many. Quite a few were shaken, rightfully so. Others were hurt. More than a handful were angry. And many artists took those feelings of angst, despair, bleakness, hopelessness, the thirst for empowerment and vengeful justice and turn them into beautiful, often moving works of art and political protest.
The same cannot be said for Todd Rundgren. Don’t get me wrong; those were all feelings expressed by the aging rocker. Yet, in the midst of such internal dismay, his latest album, pompously titled White Knight, struggles to communicate that invigoration into anything that isn’t, well, obvious, overstated or, quite frankly, pretty pretentious.
An outspoken, if not necessarily telling, collection of rally call singles, White Knight is Rundgren’s brash, scattershot and deathly unfocused attempt to make sense of our ruthlessly senseless world. But the biggest problem with this collection is that the songs themselves aren’t clever, contagious or catchy enough to capture your continued interest — especially compared to the musician’s positively sensational, groove-worthy earlier work. To the man’s credit, White Knight is more chill, if not calm-headed, and downplayed than Rundgren’s previous work. And yet, the album still finds multiple ways to be wacky and inconsistent throughout. Quite often not for the better either.
At its best, White Knight is a little bland. At its worst, it’s cloying and tediously forward. Admittedly, the album starts out fine enough with its moderately amusing early tracks. The second tune, for instance, “I Got Your Back,” featuring KK Watson & DaM FunK, is able to capture a silver of the charm and vivaciousness of Rundgren’s more alive work. “Chance For Us,” similarly, featuring Daryl Hall and Bobby Strickland, is a disco-centric, almost groovy little number that promises potential that won’t be fulfilled in the future.
Following the weirdly fairly tender “Beginning Of (The End),” White Knight takes a turn for the absolute worst when it dips its toes into full-on political commentary mayhem with the gregariously plain-faced “Tin Foil Hat,” composed alongside Donald Fagen. A subtle-less, unwitty parody of Donald Trump, it’s exactly the kind of stuff that makes even the hackiest Twitter punster seem like a high-grade joker. Trump’s unfavorable presidency has brought on many tragedies, and this is just one more to add to the list.
The following song, the live (or, potentially, “live”), “Look at Me,” doesn’t help matters any more, and they only take a turn for the worse with the awful “Let’s Do This,” and then much worse with every consecutive tune that comes after this unfortunate album, which includes, in no particular order, “Naked and Afraid,” “Buy My T,” “This is Not a Drill,” (I told you Rundgren isn’t particularly playing coy with this newest album…) and “This Could Have Been Me.”
Not even Trent Reznor or Atticus Ross could improve matters much with their collaborative effort, “Deaf Ears,” which isn’t bad — in fact, compared to the songs that come before and after it, it feels refreshing as cold-air-from-the-fridge-brushed beer after a hot, miserable, unforesaken day. Yet, despite Ross and Reznor’s solid background melody, the song is muddled by Rundgren’s painstakingly terrible lyrics, which makes it only worse knowing that Rundgren botched yet another opportunity to produce some excellent work with some our greatest contemporaries.
This uneven, undercooked White Knight, which ranges from bluesy to electronic to soulful without any room to distinguish itself with any clearheaded focus, is thankfully not going to be the album that defines Rundgren, but it’s an unfortunate by product of clear motivation wasted on under-prepared results. It’s hard to figure out exactly what went south, for it could be anything from ego to Rundgren’s (understandable) fear that he only has a matter of months before this one lacks relevancy. After all, if Trump continues this downward spiral, I wouldn’t doubt Rundgren’s belief that the 45th might only hold the White House for a matter of dwindling moments. But as we’re left under the uncaring watch of President Trump, it shouldn’t be Rundgren’s responisiblity to make an album as disorganized, unkempt, unfilfilling and unsavory as his inspiration.