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Utopia - Oblivion CD (album) cover

OBLIVION

Utopia

 

Eclectic Prog

2.46 | 31 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
2 stars Todd Rundgren is a smart guy, so it’s likely he was clearly aware of the fact that Utopia was fading fast as a relevant presence by the time Oblivion released, so maybe he was simply acknowledging this with the self-described title and bland cover art. Certainly many 70s bands were struggling to find their way through the fast-shifting fad minefield that was the 80s, but for groups like Utopia who had no solid body of work that established their niche and fan base, the struggle was proving to be fatal.

Utopia had always had chameleon tendencies throughout their career, issuing albums of a progressive/experimental bent (Todd Rundgren’s Utopia), spiritually psychedelic (Ra), British–invasion proto rock (Deface the Music), post-punk socially conscious fare (Swing to the Right), and just plain pop (Oops! Wrong Planet). Occasionally the band stumbled upon a hit (“Hello It’s Me”, “Love is the Answer”, “Set Me Free”), and certainly scores of modern musicians point to Utopia as a major influence on their own styles, but by and large the band was simply ‘there’ throughout the latter 70s and early 80s, neither making a huge impression, nor simply fading away. Until Oblivion – with this album the band pretty much sinks the final nail in their creative coffin. There is almost nothing here that is memorable, but more significantly, there is little here that is either progressive or even markedly creative. The proverbial fat lady has sung for Utopia.

Rundgren leads off with “Itch in my Brain” with some characteristic clever lyrics (“I’ve got a free will that I ain’t even used yet”), but the music is pure 80s synthetic pop with cheesy sound effects, punchy but predictable tempo, and a vocal track that sounds dangerously close to David Byrne and Talking Heads’ “Wild Wild Life”. In contrast to Deface the Music where the band intentionally parroted 60s pop icons as a tribute, this one is pretty much just a shameless rip-off as far as my ears are concerned.

Instead of love-struck angst, Rundgren has a different problem on “Love With a Thinker” – his girlfriend is apparently too smart for him! “She has the answers I don’t know how to ask”, “when she starts thinking over my head it makes me dizzy”. Clever premise maybe, but this one actually sounds like it was nipped from the suave 80s Greg Kihn Band, with its lightly pulsing keyboard riff and exaggerated vocals.

On to “Bring me my Longbow”, a syncopated synth beat and shout-and-response backing vocals sound suspiciously like a b-side from The Fixx, yet another 80s icon whose style should have been nothing like what one would expect from Utopia. Such were the times (and the level of the band’s desperation for acceptance).

“If I Didn’t Try” is a tougher call – I’m not sure which tortured soul the band is trying to emulate here. Maybe they are actually attempting an original sound; if so, it falls flat. Rundgren’s off-key wailing, over the top of a strident guitar squeal and erratic keyboards sounds more like the band was recording after too long of exposure to a sensory depravation tank. Painful to listen to.

The vinyl side-A closes with “Too Much Water”, another cheap knock-off of Talking Heads, complete with very flat and tacky drum sequence tracks and synthetic brass wind bleats. Combined with tepid lyrics (“too much water under the bridge”, repeated as- nausea), this is another dance-hit misfire.

Rundgren always managed to redeem himself at least partially, even on the worst works Utopia spewed out. On Oblivion that track is “Maybe I Could Change”, a slower, almost ballad-like pleading that’s musically pretty close to “Love is the Answer” and lyrically nearly the reverse of “Set Me Free”. I suppose it’s excusable that at least on this track, the band is copying themselves!

“Crybaby” is a rocker, screaming guitars and thwacking drumbeat overlaid with those dementia-laden vocals that form about the only consistent trademark for the band. I won’t attempt to figure out whether this is a Richard Marx or a Rick Springfield clone, since it really doesn’t matter which.

I suspect “Welcome to My Revolution” is actually a leftover from Swing to the Right, with a denser guitars, stark and more subdued rhythm, and disaffected-man-setting-in-his- basement-writing-angry-letters-to-the-government lyrics. If so, there’s a reason it was left off that album, as there is really no point to be made other than that ‘The Man’ is out to get us. Sorry, but this is not really news.

“Winston Smith Takes it on the Jaw” is kind of a Barry Manilow vocal with indiscernible lyrics and an almost completely synthetic instrumental accompaniment. “Copa, Copa Cabana, hottest spot north of Havana – here, at the Copa,…..”.

The band tries to somehow gather up all the tried on outfits at the end and bring them together into some sort of cohesive closing tune – “I Will Wait”. Unfortunately this comes off as Freddie Mercury doing “Who Wants to Live Forever” but without any talented musicians backing him. Really pitiful.

This is a frustrating band. By now all their fans know the whole story, since the band basically ceased to exist shortly after this and one more (just as awful) album was released. And that truth is – Todd Rundgren may have been some sort of musical child prodigy and technical wiz kid, but he apparently only got luck with the band’s debut and “Ra”, as almost everything the band did after these failed to demonstrate any appreciable talent or creative potential. For true fans only, and maybe not even for them. Two stars.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 2/5 |

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