Ted Leo possesses the power to foster a deep connection with the listener.
Looking back at ’00s political indie music, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists’ 2004 LP Shake the Sheets was as perfect a soundtrack for the beginning of W’s second term as TV On The Radio’s Dear Science was for the dawning of Obama’s first. So, it’s only right the first Ted Leo album since 2010 happens to be so well suited for the Fake News era of 45.
The Hanged Man isn’t, at first blush, as explicitly political as earlier Pharmacists efforts, but Leo’s impeccable skill for crafting melodic agitprop is still on display. “William Weld in the 21st Century,” the lone track specifically penned with current events in mind, is a beautiful ode to Gary Johnson’s would-be Vice President, shellacking razor-sharp barbs about respectability politics and establishment optics with a dulcet, candy-coated sweetness. Upon first listen, the ballad feels like watching a film where a man get shanked with a chocolate covered dagger. It’s thrilling, hilarious and savage all at once.
But for those anticipating an iterative evolution of the Ted Leo sound, this LP should be quite the shocker. Ted Leo is still a Jersey-bred lefty with a borderline fetishistic adoration for Bruce Springsteen and The Clash, but in this new outing, his lyrically deft and elastic brand of folk punk is but one of a series of new sounds he’s playing with. A song like “The Nazarene” leans far further into baroque pop, with its clanging percussion and warped vaudevillian piano work, than any water cooler betting pool may have surmised. Other departures have been more blatantly telegraphed over the years, like the loving Jeff Lynne influence on the sing-songy “Can’t Go Back,” a track that would have serious song of the summer potential in a different climate. Here, Leo undercuts the crushing expression of moments lost in time with the sublime nostalgia of E.L.O. homage, as if to wash that bitter pill down with something more nourishing.
But that’s what makes the album so special. Leo’s stretching his stylistic limits and trying new things in the studio provides fresh sounds with which to say difficult things. Frenetic anthem “You’re Like Me” is a real barn burner and probably slays live, but it’s even more incredible when you realize he’s using it to address the sexual abuse he suffered as a child and fostering solidarity with his listeners. “Lonsdale Avenue” at first resembles his solo cover of “Dirty Old Town,” but it’s Leo unpacking the loss of his infant daughter. For an artist whose heyday was so typified by raucous shredders aimed at the failings of society and the structural issues impacting the populace, it’s refreshing to hear Leo turning his focus inward and coming back from that journey with some of his most mature, assured songcraft yet.
Ted Leo possesses the power to foster a deep connection with the listener. He sounds at once like the cool older guy in the scene who was your hero when you first met and a true peer. Few people can pull off that split identity without seeming disingenuous, or letting you down on some account. This is a man who chose to end his album with a song called “Let’s Stay On The Moon,” a slow burner eschewing the merits of hiding out and space and watching Earth burn to a cinder from afar. Yet he doesn’t sound like a cynic. He’s a man who you know will stick around and fight, but he so eloquently captures that feeling of hopelessness, of just wanting to let it all fucking burn already, in a way that’s…almost sweet. He’s got Open Mike Eagle and Paul F. Tompkins echoing the hook like a choir. It should be a cloying mess, the kind of medley you’d expect on an episode of Jimmy Fallon. Instead it’s touching, cathartic and oddly inspiring. These are trying times and it’s nice to have this man sharing songs again so we don’t all have to play his cover of Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat” 20 times a day anymore. Maybe bring it down to five or seven.