Love it or hate it, every serious music nerd should hear this strange album once. A Wizard, A True Star was released in ’73 when I was 15, and I soon became addicted (which might explain some things), although some of it annoyed me and still does. This mash-up of prog, pop, and blue-eyed soul might be the densest, most overly over-dubbed album in history. There is literally zero space unfilled. Because of that, there is almost always something interesting going on, even if the song itself isn’t good. Side one is a medley of song fragments, sort of like side two of Abbey Road produced by a crazier Brian Wilson with access to synthesisers (unfortunately, there’s not a gapless version on YouTube). The medley sometimes gets cartoonish. A portion of side two is a medley of Motown covers, which has always seemed a bit random to me. That said, there are plenty of addictive hooks throughout. Highlights for me are “International Feel” (and its recapitulation, “Le Feel Internacionale,” which ended side 1), “When the Shit Hits the Fan/Sunset Boulevard,” “Sometimes I don’t Know What to Feel,” and “Just One Victory.” The anthemic quality of “Just One Victory” can get annoying, and it’s too long, but it has some great melodic and harmonic twists and turns.
I think Todd was trying to blow up his status as an AM radio pop artist. The previous year he’d had a commercially successful album, Something/Anything?, which was mostly straight-ahead pop ballads and rockers: it contained “Slut,” often covered by Big Star, as well as the power-pop classic, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.” Something/Anything also yielded a couple of big AM hits, the piano-driven “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” that made some people see him as kind of a male Carole King. I’m guessing that didn’t sit well with him, so he went all-out weird for A Wizard, A True Star. I’m sure there were hallucinogens involved as well. It didn’t sell nearly as well as its predecessor. Fun fact: the month after this album came out, he produced the New York Dolls’ first album.
So what to make of TR? He was a highly talented multi-intrumentalist and producer, a true master of the studio, and a pioneer of power-pop and prog. When everything clicked, he could be a very good songwriter. But he lacked self-censorship. Something/Anything? is a double ablum with way too much filler. It could have been a much better single album. As for A Wizard, A True Star, he really needed to rein in some of the self-indulgent goofiness. He produced all his own albums, even playing all instruments on many tracks. He just occasionally needed someone to say “no.” In that regard, he was like an American version of The Move’s Roy Wood, who had the same issues. That may not have been a coincidence. The Move regularly covered “Open My Eyes,” originally by TR’s 60’s band, The Nazz. And the first time I ever heard The Move’s “Do Ya” was TR covering it live.