Ted Leo - The Hanged Man (Cover Artwork)

Ted Leo

The Hanged Man (2017)

Self Release

Ted Leo’s newest album’s backstory and crowdfunded gestation nearly overshadow the actual music it contains. Nearly, but thankfully not. It has been 7 years since the last Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ album The Brutalist Bricks was released on Matador (Leo’s collaborative album with Aimee Mann The Both, notwithstanding). Since that time, Leo’s life has been a whirlwind due to a cancer struggle by his significant other, the loss of a child, and the reluctant abandonment of Brooklyn for Rhode Island.

So how does the music hold up? The Hanged Man is another essential entry into Leo’s musical canon with significant creative growth. He has always resembled a punked-up Elvis Costello with a Clash obsession. There are straight-ahead Pharmacist-style sprints (“Run to the City,” “You’re Like Me,” “Anthems of None,” “The Future”) along with a few experiments that occasionally land with the desired effect. Not every song is perfect, “Gray Havens” lovely orchestration is interrupted in the back half by a disorienting drum machine beat that throws off the impact of the song with harsh juxtaposition. However, for the most part, the diversity of the set is welcome and engaging.

The loss of home or realization that one never truly existed rises first in “Moon Out of Phase” and courses through multiple songs on the album, including strongest early single “You’re Like Me.” “You’re Like Me” begins with a reverberated Leo voice and crunchy guitar intimating that he’s been up all night just like you with the anxiety of whole life bearing down. In his Stereogum interview, Leo states this song was his way of dealing with a sexual assault from childhood. Beyond that heavy narrative, it also threads together Leo’s resistance in the face of despair that his fiercely independent musical journey has been for naught: “But if you trusted what you built it upon…if you trusted that it wasn’t a con, you’re like me.” The bouncy “Can’t Go Back” connects to the skittering “Run to the City” with the lament of loss of connection with manic urban life to a forced “run from the city,” due to exhaustion of finances and creative energies. Among one of the more successful musical flourishes, “Run to the City” concludes with an E Street-worthy saxophone outro.

The double punch of highlights that tie together one of the most resonant themes on the album are “Lonsdale Avenue” and “Let’s Stay on the Moon.” The driving but percussion-less “Lonsdale” rides on a traveling guitar lick to recount regrets and struggles Leo has dealt with over the last seven years. Most poignant of these is the recollection of his infant daughter who was born prematurely but did not survive:

“I had a selkie child, in troubled times she came / I couldn’t protect her from life and all its pain”

A selkie is a seal-like variation on the mermaid from Irish / Scottish / Icelandic folklore that transforms to human form upon landfall. Leo states “she taught me better love that I might love again / To slip into the slip stream, follow her and go.” Leo continues to explore the isolation of losing a child early with a loved significant other in “Let’s Stay on the Moon” the hopeful, waltz-like piano closer to the album:

“We had a daughter, and she died…I’m barely alive.”

“So why fight?” the song posits, and the rest of the album answers. Because life sucks and beats you down but ultimately if you can find others you love, the bonds formed can help you fight and endure against despair.

“And it’s cold now, at the core / So I’ll take the warmth of just twenty minutes more / And you with me for it all.”