It’s been seven years since Ted Leo released The Brutalist Bricks, his last solo album. For someone who released five albums in the first decade of this century, that’s a notable drop-off. It’s not like he hasn’t been busy, he released an album as The Both in 2014 with Aimee Mann and seems to spend more time on the road than at home, but by the standards of this punk rock workaholic, he’s been relatively absent.
It’s not all that surprising, he’s rapidly approaching fifty years of age, has moved out of his beloved New York and has become a musical darling of the American improv world. However, with a back catalogue that’s been most inspired when his country is at its lowest ebb, it feels right that less than a year into the Trump presidency he’s returned.
Ted Leo has an incredible knack of knocking out incredible power-punk songs that embrace the best parts of Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and The Jam. Though the influences are clear, there’s no mistaking Ted’s style which had he seemed to have explored to the limits by the time his last album came out. Perhaps that’s why he embarked on his underwhelming collaboration with Aimee Mann, in an attempt to change things up. Unfortunately the collaboration never managed to be greater than the sum of its parts, with the elements of each artist very distinguishable throughout their musical output, only occasionally proving successful.
When you look back at Ted’s varied career, particularly the progression from his wildly experimental debut solo album tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists which must have acted as a form of creative expressionism after his band Chisel came to an end, you’d be forgiven to think his best days are behind him. This doesn’t mean he can’t still belt out four minutes of frenetic pop punk glory however, and many would be happy enough for him to keep writing in this style indefinitely. The Kickstarter campaign drawing that funded the album drew in over two times the $85,000 target at the prospect of more music from the New Jersey punk.
Perhaps it was the time, perhaps it was the space, but the wait was worth it. The Hanged Man is the most creatively inspired album Ted’s put out for a long time.
“Moon Out Of Phase” is such an incredible statement to open the album. Sounding like an Elvis Costello song slowed down, which results in a sound strangely reminiscent of PJ Harvey, it’s one of those simple, mood setting opening statements which says loudly and clearly that this isn’t just another Ted Leo album. The vocal harmonies sound luscious over the chugging guitar riff, with no need for anything but guitar and vocals to make the song sound massive.
When the other instruments kick in for “Used To Believe”, one of the most apparent things you’ll notice is the odd mixing the album has. The bass is disproportionately loud with the drum levels the opposite, making them sound like an afterthought at times. It only seems to level out when the entire instrumentation of the song plays at once, sounding particularly strange on tracks like “The Future (Is Learning To…)” where the verse is just drums, bass and vocals. It’s as though the whole thing has been recorded live with no change in volume to each instrument, to create something as similar to a live sound without an engineer as it gets. It’s an interesting decision to make, and one that’s no doubt intentional since Ted mixed this album himself, but it does prove to be distracting at times.
Despite this, the songs themselves sound more creatively inspired than Ted’s taken risks with for quite some time. There’s Motown, soul, balladeering and more to this album, yet it all holds together in a way that never sounds forced. “Can’t Go Back” is a gorgeous playful and soulful song whose female backing vocals sound gorgeous alongside Ted’s unusually restrained voice. “William Weld in the 21st Century” shows off Ted’s ability to write softer songs without that self-consciousness that he once showed at his more tender moments, happy to let the song play to some soft rock cliches rather than feel the need to overlay feedback to ‘keep it real’.
It’s a more mature offering than I think Ted’s ever achieved before, highlighting some sides of Ted’s songwriting abilities that haven’t had the chance to shine for a long time. There’ve always been moments of experimentation in his recent output, whether the cod reggae of “The Unwanted Things” or the Irish folk of “Tubercluoids Arrive In Hop”, but rather than sounding tokenistic, they sound thought out and well positioned. That’s not to say that it’s a total departure from what’s come before, there are still plenty of examples of good ol’ Ted such as “Anthems Of None”, “You’re Like Me” and “Run To The City”, but the variation in sound makes the whole experience less exhausting. You’d be forgiven that Ted didn’t have it in him to pull something as melancholically stark like “Let’s Stay On The Moon” out of the bag or the Alt-J sounding “Gray Havens”, but this album is full of surprises like that.
It’s by no means perfect, and there are distinct highlights, but it sounds like a Ted more comfortable in himself than he’s been for some time, willing to take risks and drop the pace where it suits. There’s an excitement and maturity that holds it all together in a way that maybe the time has benefited from. It gives excitement into Ted’s output which is something that some thought he’d never be able to get back. It shows this old dog’s not ready to be taken out back just yet.
Review Score: 7.1 out of 10.
The Hanged Man is out September 8th.