Ted Leo: The Hanged Man






Ted Leo’s new record, The Hanged Man, is a challenging record, in more ways than one. Both musically and lyrically, it’s set apart from the frenetic, Joe Jackson-meets-Thin Lizzy-meets-The Clash sounds of Shake the Sheets or Hearts of Oak, and it’s more densely layered and complicated than efforts like Biomusicology.

All things considered, I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that this record's more difficult than your average Ted Leo record. Ted Leo’s always been more politically-minded and more empathetic than your average musician, and 2016 was a hell of a difficult year for those with any interest in American politics, or civility, or any kind of fundamental empathy. Further, Leo works through heartbreaks and hurt from pasts both distant and recent throughout this record. It isn’t the record of a broken man, but it does sound like the kind of record you’d make when you feel like life is trying to break you.

In Stereogum’s suburb and wide-ranging profile of Leo, published in July 2017, he discusses some of the trauma, trials and tribulations that have gone into not just this record - a Kickstarted, self-produced effort - but the rest of his career and his personal life. I can’t do that profile justice in excerpting it, and won’t try, but one quote from Leo sort of sums up the record, at least in my listening to it:

“It represents a willingness to accept one’s place in space and time, and pause and accept a time of suspension in hopes that some wisdom will come from it.”

Sonically, it’s a different Ted Leo record than you’re used to. His voice is as strong and clear as ever, but there’s less of the optimism, and, truth be told, less of the joy you’d expect from an ordinary Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record. The Hanged Man is a complicated, contemplative record that’s more challenging than what you’re used to. Opener “Moon Out of Phase” is a strange, one-note dirge reportedly written immediately after the election that sort of undersells the eclectic, thought-provoking nature of the rest of the record. Throughout, Leo weaves a variety of tempos, themes, sounds and ideas into an interesting, if complicated tapestry.

Standout “William Weld In the 21st Century” name-checks the failed libertarian Vice-Presidential candidate, who, near the end of his party’s campaign, all-but-abandoned the libertarian ticket in a doomed, futile, too-late effort to try to stop libertarians from splitting right-leaning votes in opposition to Donald Trump. Side B track “Run to the City” includes a couple of reverbed-out saxophone solos that, somehow, doesn’t manage to sound out-of-place in the bop and clap of the song’s singalong chorus.

The album comes into it’s own on the second disc, with Side C opener “Gray Havens” offering a lilting “Warning, Warning” that’s at once both personal and political. Side C closer “Anthems of None” sounds the most like what you’d expect from Leo, but adds an 80’s new wave reverb and echo to every verse, with one of the strongest choruses on the entire record.

Side D opener “You’re Like Me” is probably the most-written about track on the record, and for good reason; the song cryptically refers to a dark, defining moment in Leo’s history detailed in Stereogum’s profile, but it also serves as a call of solidarity for everyone else whose troubled pasts might frustrate their attempts to move forward. “Lonsdale Avenue” is a ballad that sounds like the west with lovely, wispy background vocals provided by his frequent and longtime collaborator, Aimee Mann. The album closes with the expansive, cathartic “Let’s Stay on the Moon” featuring a full choir of Leo's collaborators and friends, who lend their voices to the difficult subject matter, and is a satisfying, disparate mix of sounds and influences.

Overall, The Hanged Man might not win too many new Ted Leo fans over; it’s a challenging record, and it’s not without it without it’s missteps. The album suffers a little without the rock-solid Pharmacists backing Leo, and, at points, it feels a little meandering or aloof. It’s messy, it’s uneven, and that sometimes gets in the way of how powerful and moving it can be. But, ultimately, it's a very good record, full of heart and soul and pathos, and, in 2017, it feels like the kind of record we need, even if it isn’t the one we want.