Helping Ted Leo Help Himself
It turns out that the “nicest guy in punk” is human, and has suffered, just like the rest of us. But we didn’t love Ted Leo because we thought he was some unimpeachable saint, but he didn’t earn his reputation fraudulently. His righteous indignation, the palpable joy in his performances, and his undeniable charisma rooted in genuine humanistic power-pop, these moves are impossible to duplicate. He should have been the American Frank Turner—a post-mod turned troubadour filling stadiums, killing fascists by the strum after putting in his time for the past twenty years and change. Fate had other ideas.
It’s been three years since he joined Aimee Mann in The Both, when they cut a collaborative disc that sounds like the best of each without merely re-paving the well-trod paths of either. Four years before that Ted Leo and the Pharmacists gave us their most recent album, The Brutalist Bricks. Between those two records Ted got around, but the last couple years have been relatively quiet for him. Now we know why, thanks to a Kickstarter announcement and Stereogum article that outlines a lot of Ted’s history, pain, and loss. He’s been through some shit, and I wish I could return a percentage of the positivity that he’s has brought to my life, throughout times dark and light and then dark again.
Perhaps I took Ted for granted, assuming he’d always tear through town again either on the festival footpath or in an Allston living room. But we the fans were given the chance to return some of Ted Leo’s goodwill when he announced the Kickstarter campaign for his new album, The Hanged Man. A Kickstarter success story is hardly newsworthy nowadays, and this one didn’t smash fundraising records and launch our boy into the atmosphere on a rocket of cash. His goal was punched through in short order though, and then doubled on top of that. It was nice to be able to float Ted for once, to allow him to change in some of that good karma.
Still, all that time, fan energy, and revealed history is a lot of weight for a single album to bear, and this is a somber collection at that. Entirely self-recorded with various contributors, The Hanged Man sounds like it’s been rattling in Ted’s skull for some time. His signature falsetto still rings out, self-layered on most songs, as if he’s supporting himself through a kind of inner-strength. And from the doom-ish multi-tracked opener through the ballads, the effects-laden rockers with anti-solos and horn sections to the choral army backing Ted up on meditative closer, this one’s a focused amalgamation of everything he’s done before.
From the unfairly maligned first experimental solo record, which peeks through the drum machines and tonal shifts of “Gray Havens,” through each of his works that subtly but steadily evolved his songwriting, The Hanged Man is Ted Leo at this most expansive. He doesn’t lose hold of the reins though, there is a kind of subdued restraint, calculated without being cold. The steady hands of Cheap Trick and The Sweet guide “The Future (Is Learning To…)” and “You’re Like Me”, but that’s no surprise—Ted digs deeper from these influences and others, from soul and classic rock, the joy of an apartment gig turned out. The singalongs are less natural on The Hanged Man but that’s likely a conscious effort to maintain a more personal tone. Ted’s letting us in with his most exposed record to date, a catharsis of sorts. Not grim, but honest and vulnerable, sweet and sour, that builds and crumbles and builds itself up again.
Ted subverts the risks with a project like this, of self-indulgence or a lack of confidence in one’s own style, by bending his formula but not breaking it. It’s a scrappy sound, free from studio sheen, meticulous but raw. Each song of The Hanged Man swings with a bittersweet tinge, from an artist in total control of his craft and willing to walk the tightrope without a harness. Each listen unearths a different harmony or subtle resonance between the instruments and Ted’s voice, the bedroom-studio interplay backboned by a master songwriter never content to sit back and phone it in. We don’t deserve Ted Leo but thankfully he has returned, still casting a warm glow over a room that’s with him all the way.