By Zachary Lipez, Summer 2017
It’s a comforting cliché that “you can’t keep a good man down,” but of course you can. Good men and women and non-gender-conforming people are kept down all the time. The world crushes the good and talented and honest and decent unsparingly. We’ve all got our own problems for sure, and god knows there's a hierarchy of pain, but let’s not pretend the day to day leans towards “fair.” So, what do we do, naked and afraid, with nothing but wolves at the door to use as warmth? Huddling helps. Songs are useful. Communicating via direct message is pretty good, but a true song, sung by someone who stood with us for more than a while, whose lyrics made sense when we were marching in the street or drunk in the bar, well, that works too.
Ted Leo is one of the finest songwriters of our generation, even if it’s not entirely clear what generation that is. Starting in New York Hardcore with Citizen’s Arrest, making the ‘90s safe for power-pop and Weller-esque hair with Chisel, then singing our turbulent lives like we were smarter than we were with The Pharmacists, and most recently providing equal parts sweetness and solace with Aimee Mann as The Both, Ted never let us down. Unmentioned in Meet Me In The Bathroom because he never did coke, who do you think it was who always made sure we made it home? Every time we’d ask, “what have you done for me lately?” Ted would say, “this,” give us another collection of songs incisive and tour van-ready, and we’d say, “oh, sick” and pass out in his arms.
Before this becomes (another) installment of Ted Leo slash fiction, what you need to know: Ted Leo, at long last, seven years after The Brutalist Bricks, has a new solo album. It’s fucking wonderful.
The Hanged Man (and, in tandem, a collection of B-sides) is to be self-released on September 8, 2017. Let’s just get this out of the way; it’s self-released because Leo got dropped by his label, Matador. He bears the label no ill will, it’s cool, it’s cool. Ted, blessed/cursed with perspective, seeing a lifetime’s worth of indie labels (Touch & Go, Lookout!) devoured by Mammon, and played at every now-shuttered DIY venue in the Western Hemisphere, knows the ephemeral. If not exactly unbothered, Ted keeps it moving.
Having worked on a collection of songs for almost a decade, through events so profoundly painful that I, given the tone of this one-sheet, hesitate to detail here, Leo could have easily given up when initial plans didn’t pan out. Instead, true to his calling and true to the job, Ted looked to crowdfunding. His expectations were reasonable. But the result was an outpouring of gratitude and faith from fans for whom Leo’s music had always been a refuge and soundtrack to their own trials and/or celebration. It’s gauche to get into exact numbers, but the money raised shook the cynicism of this writer to the floor. A lifetime of meaningful work coupled with activism, humor, and out-of-time generosity of spirit was rewarded in literally minutes. And, so, The Hanged Man.
The songs on The Hanged Man, recorded at a home-studio-in-transition in Wakefield, RI, with Ted playing almost all the instruments, are some of the finest and finely wrought of Ted Leo’s career. I’m not saying this because I’m paid to (I think we’re doing a barter deal anyway). I’ve gone behind Ted’s back and discussed this subject with some of his fellow musicians and some of my privy peers. We’re all genuinely giddy at how good this record is.
Ted describes the time working on The Hanged Man as a time of “personal desolation that felt fallow but was actually very fertile” and, indeed, lyrically, The Hanged Man is suffused with hope of sorts but crushingly heavy. The concerns addressed, whether personal trauma or the national disaster we’re all currently existing in, matched with the range and vitality of the songcraft is, forgive my insistence on a needed comfort, inspiring. Uplifting, even. There are the sharp bursts of skinny tie pop-punk fury one would expect from Leo (and even these feel streamlined like never before) but they are offset with an adventurousness in both tone and structure. The intention was to upend expectations but, on songs like the bookends of “Moon Out of Phase” and “Let’s Stay On The Moon,” the intention never gets in the way of the result. There’s no strain of effort in songs that are unlike anything Leo has done previously. This is an album to be played end to end, blasting from a car, in transit in public earbud isolation, on whatever bed one finds oneself on.
I worry that I’m framing this album release as something we all owe Ted Leo, because he has solid DIY cred, hasn’t died and is a good dude. Nah. The Hanged Man is a Rock and Roll album and Ted would be the first to claim himself lucky for what he’s got and the advantages he’s been given. The world is awash in singers who can carry a tune and don’t kick dogs. But The Hanged Man is a career high, from a man whose standards never slipped. Ted Leo has made a very fine work of art, born through industry soul sickness, nausea-inducing crisis, and a talent that feels like secular grace. You don’t have to consider it a gift – hyperbole has ruined everything – but I do and it makes me feel lucky to have received it.