Of all the lengthy classic rock catalogues out there, Todd Rundgren’s has got to rank near the top on pure intrigue, with a large number of “I don’t know if this is going to be any good but I’ve got to hear him do it” moments. There’s the album where he made painstakingly accurate renditions of 60’s psychedelic radio staples (Faithful), the one where he jammed 36 minutes of sequencer instrumentals onto a single side (Initiation), the one where every single sound came out of his mouth (A Capella), and the one where he imagined an “alternate” history of The Beatles, which managed to piss off a big chunk of their fans (Deface the Music). Perhaps these aren’t Todd’s greatest inventions but they’re all worth at least one listen, if only just to satisfy your own curiosity. But to me this all pales in comparison to No World Order. An industrial hip-hop album? Originally released on CD-i? With fully interchangeable components and three separate CD releases? By Todd “Hello It’s Me” Rundgren? Hell yeah, sign me up!!
First of all I have to respect this album right off the bat, for it really is admirable when a classic rock icon almost intentionally releases something guaranteed to sell as few units as possible. Particularly since he was in need of a comeback; since his surprise novelty single “Bang on the Drum All Day” he had virtually disappeared, with Utopia unglamorously fizzling out and Todd himself taking up to four years between solo albums, which is an eternity in Toddland. If there was ever a time for Something/Anything? Part 2 this was it, which, by Todd logic, is exactly why we didn’t get it. Instead, Todd turned his baseball cap around, rebranded himself as TR-i, and created an album specifically for the market segment that owned Phillips CD-i machines and wanted a Choose Your Own Adventure-style listening experience. Of course the bulk of these were sold on CD to Toddheads who just wanted to hear the new stuff, but it’s kind of hard to remove the concept from the music here. I mean outside of Todd’s guitar (which crops up for a solo from time to time) every instrument is digitized to the best of your Sega Genesis’s ability, and the tempos generally stay uniform so the songs can blend into (or, more accurately: awkwardly clash against) each one another.
So what’s the music like? Suffice to say this sort of loud industrial techno has not exactly held up the greatest, even by the standards of ’93. After all, that was the year of Fluke’s Six Wheels on My Wagon, Orbital’s Brown Album, and Underworld’s “Rez”, all of which still sound pretty damn good today. No World Order on the other hand often sounds like a shitty Nitzer Ebb disc cut with some of Todd’s usual songwriting and a whole lot of embarrassing/entertaining rapping. Lest you think hip-hop is just another one of this album’s little gimmicks let me assure you that Todd raps all over this thing. He is about as awful at it as you’d expect, with no sense of meter and a lot of really forced rhymes (“A bit wiser and a whole lot older/feelin’ bolder/suckin’ up to the last stockholder/with a golden parachute slung over your shoulder”) – even by Kurtis Blow standards this is pretty bad. But if you made it through “Emperor of the Highway” you can make it through this, especially since the whole rapped verses/sung chorus thing is actually interesting when you’ve got a guy who can’t rap but can sing; usually, it’s the opposite isn’t it? Plus, some of the songs are pretty decent. I mean, if you’re using The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect as a baseline then really none of this is all that bad (outside of maybe “Fascist Christ”, which sounds like it was stolen from Trent Reznor’s garbage can), and if you squint there is some Classic Todd here. You could probably draw a straight line from “Worldwide Epiphany” to “International Feel”. “Property” and “Proactivity” have that Stevie Wonder synth-funk thing going on and both would’ve made fine singles (the former was, which is kind of hilarious given it’s one of the only tracks on here that he doesn’t rap on). “Love Thing”, “Time Stood Still”, and “Fever Broke” are all solid ballads at their core, which are the bread and butter of any TR album. Like all those late period kinda-iffy Todd albums, the talent is still clearly there.
Is it worth checking out? I’ll put it this way, if you’ve come this far, you might as well. This is certainly the most intriguing album he’s put out since Healing and if nothing else, you’ve gotta give him credit for going where no classic rock icon would possibly go. Just listen to “Day Job” – have you ever heard an artist so willingly going out of their depth? Perhaps the overall sound has not entirely held up (unless you’re looking through vaporwave-colored glasses) but I do think the jumbled and interactive nature of the album was at least somewhat ahead of its time. On the main CD release you get 16 tracks but only 10 songs, with many of the intros being sampled from other tunes, so if you put it on shuffle there are a bunch of fake outs and abrupt endings. There’s also a Lite version which just gives you the songs, and a Version 1.01 with radio edits and remixes (which I imagine sold about ten copies). One can only imagine what he would have come up with in the world of the internet and mobile apps. Don’t get me wrong – I understand why this album is nearly impossible to take seriously, not with lines like “Job number one is gonna be findin’ a way/That we can rave all night and meditate all day”. And you’d be nuts to grab all three versions of it – it’s good but not that good, and besides there’s not much Todd can do here besides cut n’ paste. But there’s a great idea lurking in here, one that iTunes and Spotify still haven’t exactly caught up with. Todd wound up making one more album under the TR-i guise (The Individualist) and then it was on to the next thing. There’s plenty of great music later in Todd’s catalogue, but he’d never quite get this far out there again. Dig it!