Ted Leo finally returns on ‘The Hanged Man’
John Wilson | Tuesday, September 26, 2017
I got into Ted Leo by way of a brief obsession with the band Titus Andronicus. All I knew at the time was that he had taken my then favorite band with him on tour, which was all it took for me to look into his music. That was around 2012, and in the five years since I have become a huge fan of Ted Leo and his band, The Pharmacists. At some point I also discovered, and now feel obliged to mention, that Leo is a Notre Dame alumnus. Having a shared experience with an artist, especially something as personal as your college experience, does help inform one’s relationship with their work, even if it’s largely immaterial.
Earlier this month Leo released his first solo album since 2010, this time without The Pharmacists as a backing band. The album is called “The Hanged Man,” and was self-released by Leo himself thanks to fundraising on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Leo’s album stands apart from the usual Kickstarter campaigns: a microwave controlled by an app, a subscription based toothpaste service controlled by an app, a low budget comedy script that somehow features an app. Eschewing a label of any kind isn’t something you’d expect from a veteran musician, but for someone who turned down a record deal with Columbia Records (part of Sony Music Entertainment) earlier in their career, this does not come as a surprise.
One of the tiers on “The Hanged Man” Kickstarter reads that for $1000 you will get, in addition to a copy of the album, a personalized song. The caption below reads, “I got a lotta riffs just hangin’ around, and am pretty good at making them up on the spot.” For another artist this might sound immodest — for Leo it’s hard to find fault. His career has been built on blending hardcore, punk and ska influences with effortless pop sensibility, creating endlessly catchy guitar hooks.
Underneath those sugary melodies have often been biting political statements littered throughout. It is hard to write meaningfully political lyrics without sounding either trite or crass. Leo has avoided both pitfalls with songs explicitly critical of subjects such as the George W. Bush Administration, the War in Iraq and wealth inequality. Of course it makes sense that one of Leo’s musical idols is Billy Bragg, the English folk punk singer who wrote about love and politics in a similar way that Leo does today.
The album opens with “Moon out of Phase,” which pairs a jarringly monotone guitar with a vivid personal account of the day after the 2016 election. While not directly referencing politics, the next three songs tackle the feelings of disenchantment, uncertainty, regret and resigned patience that might have been felt in the wake of the election. For a Ted Leo album — especially in times as politically turbulent as these — the politics are more subdued and scarce than one might expect.
The middle section of the album turns inward, and shows that much has happened in Leo’s life since his last album. Leo has been open about disillusionment with the music industry and changes he has faced in his personal life. These songs go from punk tinged rock like “Run to the City,” “The Little Smug Supper Club,” “Anthems of None” and “You’re Like Me” to slower ballads such as “Make Me Feel Loved” and “Gray Havens.”
None of that prepares you for the desolation of the final two songs. They cover alienation and nihilism, but most poignantly the tragic late term miscarriage suffered by his wife. The lyrics paint a stark picture of grief that is impossible to imagine. The glimpses of light that shine through are in lines sung alone with just an electric guitar behind him like “We called her many things, and those she’ll remain / But she taught me better love that I might love again” on “Lonsdale Avenue.” On “Let’s Stay on the Moon” Leo is joined by friends and collaborators to sing a chorus, “Watch the earth go down,” that is full of defeat. There probably won’t be another song this year featuring Paul F. Tompkins, Open Mike Eagle and Aimee Mann harmonizing in the background.
It is easy to forget an album only captures an artist at a point in time, and that their lives go on afterward. With “The Hanged Man” Leo has an hour to catch his audience up with the last seven years of his life. The themes here are harder to digest than usual, but Leo has made a career making hard to hear subjects sound sweet.
Artist: Ted Leo
Album: “The Hanged Man”
If you like: Billy Bragg, The Hold Steady