ON THIS DATE (23 YEARS AGO)
May 18, 1989 – Todd Rundgren: Nearly Human is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4.5/5
# allmusic 4/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Nearly Human is an album by Todd Rundgren, released on this date in May, 1989 and his second for Warner Bros. Records. The single “The Want of a Nail” peaked at #15 on Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
His first release in four years time – the longest break in Rundgren’s discography up to that point, although he had been active as a producer in the intervening years – the album has a soulful, searching, sometimes ironic but ultimately life-affirming ambience. Many of the songs deal with loss, self-doubt, jealousy and spiritual recovery, themes that seem to reflect his final separation and divorce from Bebe Buell and the loss of custody of Buell’s daughter Liv Tyler who had grown up thinking Rundgren was her father.
The album was also the first collaboration of Rundgren and Michele Gray, a singer and ex-model who helped organize the sessions, and sang background vocals both on the record and on the subsequent tours; she and Rundgren would eventually marry.
Nearly Human garnered very favorable reviews and is considered one of Rundgren’s best albums by many of his fans, the songs having aged well in the intervening years.
In contrast to much of his other solo work where Rundgren performed in isolation playing all instruments, the album was performed live in the studio with many musicians contributing. The technique was reminiscent of the fourth side of the popular Something/Anything?, except that the material reflected the more mature perspective of a 40-year-old.
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
Patti Smith once said Todd Rundgren had “the ability to devour and juggle the best of what has passed and shoot it into future perfect.” In fact, she said it in these very pages, back in 1971, in a review of his second solo LP, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. It would be another year before the young studio savant issued his magnum pop opus, the four-sided Something/Anything, generally acknowledged to be the consummate early-Seventies earcandy album. But even then, Smith, no minor judge of what constitutes the art of rock, recognized in Ballad’s beguiling songs of love and loss the imprint of a gifted craftsman with the intellect and imagination to make tomorrow’s pop today and the chops to do it with one hand tied behind his back.
Nearly Human, Rundgren’s first solo release of new material since his 1985 look-Ma-no-instruments album A Capella, actually produces the opposite effect – technique plus brains plus vision equals vintage Seventies Todd pop. Ever since Something/Anything, Rundgren has diligently made records according to his own rebellious aesthetic and utopian spirituality, only intermittently exercising his ability to create lush, loving ballads and bright sing-along singles. Admittedly, he’s made more than enough of those to fill Rhino’s new almost-two-hour-long compilation, Anthology (1968-1985). (There’s another volume dedicated to his work with the band Utopia.) Still, Nearly Human is as deliciously retro as Rundgren has ever been, not only begging comparison to the bumper crop of radio-ready jewels on records like Something/Anything and 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow but harking back even further to his deep roots in sophisto-Philly soul.
Simply put, Nearly Human is the best album of classy white-brat R&B since 1973’s Abandoned Luncheonette, by Rundgren’s old homeboys Hall and Oates. Cut au naturel in the studio with a veritable philharmonic of strings, brass and background singers (sort of Rundgren conducts the Love Unlimited Orchestra), it’s a colorful evocation of Motown dance frenzy, the light gauzy cool of Aja-period Steely Dan and the silken grandeur of Philadelphia International’s greatest hits. It’s also dosed with an almost garage brashness in Rundgren’s distinctive vocal style, a seductive amalgam of choirboy polish, shivering shy-boy croon and strained suburban-punk testifying. Rundgren doesn’t pretend to make textbook soul; he only wants to rev up his own kind of quiet storm the old-fashioned way.
The album’s boisterous opener, “The Want of a Nail,” boasts truly righteous roots – the O’Jays or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes could have done a real torch job on this one back in ’75. As it is, guest singer Bobby Womack pours on his own soul kerosene while Rundgren turns his white wail loose in this rousing parable about horses, shoes and the importance of details (“For the want of a nail/The world was lost”). He shows equal chutzpah when he takes on a twenty-two-voice chorale in the album’s hallelujah finale “I Love My Life,” although the “Reverend Todd” shtick in the middle drags on to minimal effect. He may be A Wizard/A True Star, but he’s no Jesse Jackson.
That’s okay, because the ballads are the real heart of the record. “Hawking” is a pensive, hesitant ode to a Higher Love in the image of the slow, meditative beauty “The Verb ‘to Love’,” on Faithful. “Feel It,” co-written by keyboardist Vince Welnick of the Tubes, is a kind of Rundgrenesque take on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” with whispery female vocals and a come-hither chorus. And even at his most accessible, Rundgren never lapses into the predictable; he throws a couple of neat vocal-harmony curves in “The Waiting Game” and “Parallel Lines” that are as captivating as his simple, addictive melodies.
Indeed, the most extraordinary thing about Todd Rundgren’s talent for making compelling if eccentric pop is that he has no solo platinum to show for it. Anthology (1968-1985), the capper to Rhino’s comprehensive reissue of the Rundgren LP catalog, isn’t so much a greatest-hits collection – Rundgren’s only had about an EP’s worth of Top Forty hits in the past twenty years – as it is a best-of-the-should-have-beens, twenty-seven to be exact. Even in the context of their original, obsessively wayward LPs, “Real Man” (Initiation) and “Time Heals” (Healing) had the hooks and rhythmic heft to be heavy-rotation naturals. “A Dream Goes on Forever” sounds like a Broadway hit in search of a musical. Then there’s the blend of tragicomic classical piano and heavy-metal melancholy in “Don’t You Ever Learn”; the long waltz-like goodbye of “Can We Still Be Friends”; the naturally sweetened power pop of “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.”
It’s also nice to hear so many of Rundgren’s finest moments divorced from the philosophical concepts and musical conceits that often guide his album making. Anthology (1968-1985) is the best of Todd Rundgren the pop mister, and the same goes for Nearly Human. Although there is a nominal concept to the new LP (that people, not machines, make the best music; take that, Depeche Mode), Nearly Human is really the record Todd Rundgren has refused to make for over fifteen years – simple, superb white pop soul, with no heavy intellectual strings attached. It was worth the wait. (RS 555)
~ DAVID FRICKE (June 29, 1989)
All songs written by Todd Rundgren unless otherwise noted.
“The Want of a Nail”
“The Waiting Game”
“Can’t Stop Running”
“Feel It” (Rundgren/Tubes/Vince Welnick)
“I Love My Life”
“The Want of a Nail” (ft. Bobby Womack) (5:14)
“The Waiting Game” (4:16)
“Parallel Lines” (4:22)
“Two Little Hitlers” (Elvis Costello) (3:55)
“Can’t Stop Running” (5:00)
“Unloved Children” (4:03)
“Feel It” (Rundgren/Tubes/Vince Welnick) (5:47)
“I Love My Life” (8:55)