Oblivion – Utopia (1984)

Oblivion album cover
Oblivion album cover

One or two of my best friends in college introduced me to Utopia. I had heard ‘Crybaby’ and even recorded its music video on my Betamax, but never considered the album beyond that single.  The more I listened to my friends Utopia cassettes, the more it dawned on me that this was an interesting and unique quartet, but not in a way I was completely comfortable with.  Still I was drawn to their music, mostly on the strength of Todd Rundgren.

Sometimes a band can sound so out of time that they could almost start their own sub genre. Utopia could have been one of those bands. It’s lead vocalist Todd Rundgren (by some accounts a musical  genius) was a true studio master, singer and songwriter. When he was not making his odd brand of Philly blue eyed soul, he fronted Utopia pretty much from it’s inception in 1974. Utopia made a name for itself in the ’70s as a hard arena rock band.

Utopia’s kind of rock was beginning to look and sound dated as the ’80s approached, so the band did with many ’70s era rockers did – they remade themselves, or at least tried to. Oblivion was Utopia’s way of bringing themselves firmly into to ’80s with synthesizers, laser light shows and graphic references to grids and triangles. With any luck they could slip in under the new wave banner and pick up some new fans along the way.

Some pressings featured a black album jacket with a embossed title. It gave no clue as to what kind of creation was inside, but one listen would reveal a band that was clearly out of time or out of step with the rest of the New Romantic turned electro pop class of 1984. It wasn’t that Oblivion was a bad album. Despite Rundgren’s production (with Utopia), the album had a harsh sound that at times sounded rough around the edges – much like unfinished songs might. The sound quality issue was never resolved, as CD pressings only exasperated the problem.

In a strange kind of way, this was all part of Oblivion’s charm, that and the fact that it sounded like a unintentional throwback to late 70’s rock with a few synthesizers thrown in. The albums most formidable hit, ‘Crybaby’ was a great example of this odd out of time juxtaposition. It would remain Utopia’s biggest hit with its power rock chorus and a catchy hook. Bolstered by a great conceptual video, it’s easy to imagine the song as a hit for some heavy metal band like Def Leppard. Despite the general success of ‘Crybaby’, Oblivion would peak in the last quarter of the Billboard top 100 Albums chart.

Part of the by product of mixing up ’70s and ’80s musical styles lent many of the songs their awkward and uneasy pacing. ’70s melody fused with ’80s rhythm via synthesizers yielded oddities like ‘Too Much Water’ and ‘Itch In My Brain’. But it was the album’s ballads or slower paced songs that seemed to work best. Songs like ‘I Will Wait ‘ and If I Didn’t Try’ would have been great songs for any number of artist Rundgren produced in the ’70s, but sounded a bit corny here.

That sense of corniness was a byproduct of Rundgren’s clever if not zany songwriting.  ‘Love With a Thinker’ was one of those funny songs that only Rundgren (or maybe Split Enz) may have written. Utopia would even out its sound as the ’80s progressed, always a step behind what the rest of the music scene was doing and being all the more interesting for it.

That kind of experimentation was never rewarded with major label distribution of chart success and Utopia would eventually call it quits the following year after the release of P.O.V.

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