Ever since hearing Shake the Sheets in college, I have been a devoted Ted Leo fan, seeing him play with the Pharmacists, with Aimee Mann in their collaboration The Both, and now following him as he goes into his first full-length solo effort, The Hanged Man [SuperEgo Records, 2017]. While the album at times meanders into slow dirges, in its entirety it continues to enforce Leo’s acclaim as one of the best songwriters working below the radar today.
Opener “Moon Out of Phase” acts more as an extended intro then as a proper song, leading into “Used to Believe”, a crunchy piece of power pop that sets the tone for the album as Leo reflects on the beliefs that used to keep him moving forward and empowered through hard times. As can be read in other press (see Flood Magazine’s interview with Leo here), the last handful of years have been rough both professionally and personally for him, and its not hard to hear the scars from these times in the songs. “Used to Believe” ends with a beautifully melancholy echoing of “down” that Brian Wilson couldn’t have orchestrated better.
Single “I Can’t Go Back” picks up the mood. It’s a bouncy number melding Leo’s mod leanings with a snappy doo-wop flavor that shows that Leo is already leaving the rubble in his past behind him. And though “The Future (is Learning to)” also focuses on what’s next, there’s a strong influence of 80’s stadium rock burning in the guitar solos speaker-blasting chorus. Throughout The Hanged Man are various musical nods to Leo’s influences, making this one of his most creatively adventurous albums to date.
The album dips a bit over “William Weld in the 21st Century”, an acoustic ballad that never manages to connect musically or lyrically (I’m also not sure if the Weld in question is the former Libertarian VP nominee) and “The Nazarene”, a slow, piano-driven song that is not helped by the dirty guitars and base that flesh it out half-way in. Leo has heavier subjects on the mind in the song, singing “You waged a war against your only son…don’t take the piece, this thing has just begun”, but as it goes on for over 6 minutes, the impact the message may have had got lost in the monotonous melody.
A bit of pep returns in “Run to the City”, but is lost again with “Gray Havens”, which is the prettiest of all of Leo’s slow numbers on the album, and quietly builds to a rousing denoument.
The Hanged Man doesn’t truly find its way again until “The Little Smug Supperclub”, a perfect piece of mod rock that would have fit on any of Leo’s older albums with the Pharmacists. From here, each following track is a hit out of the park. “Anthems of None” feels like it could be a sequel to The Replacements “Bastards of Young”, “You’re Like Me” rocks with a punkish punch, and “Londsdale Avenue” is a blue collar folk tune that recalls Springsteen at his best. Heralding back to the album’s opener, “Let’s Stay on the Moon” is a soulful, choir-accompanied closer that sonically references “Used to Believe” with the ending repetition of “watch the Earth go down”. It makes the album feel complete, and proves Leo still values the art of creating a full album as opposed to a collection of songs. He’s an intelligent, gifted songwriter who thankfully graces us here on Earth.