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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- Zachary Lipez