Almost a decade ago, Ted Leo opened one of the finest albums of his career with a stunning song that climaxed with the line, "All the songs you hear down here, they have a purpose." This line from "Biomusicology" has proved a fitting mission statement for Leo's career. Leo has a knack for trying to squeeze political action into every corner of every song. At first, the politics were more subdued, a mixture of the personal-is-political, and more overt soap-boxing. As America's political climate soured, though, Leo's songwriting grew increasingly political. Shake the Sheets was an outright protest record, and Living With the Living was a sprawling mess of an album that tried to focus on the personal, but was too bogged down by its own political clutter. That's a shame, because turning back to "Biomusicology," the song's more important lines are the supporting sentiments that follow the above quote: first, "all in all/we can not stop singing"; and second, "but we will ne'er be broken hearted." Why these lines? Because they maintain a sense of political action while focusing inward to the vital, human tendency to seek joy. The song isn't simply a political diatribe, it is about finding spaces in which to maintain one's humanity in a fucked up, dysfunctional culture. These are the kinds of songs where Leo shines and that, at times, make me wonder if he isn't one of our best living songwriters. And of course, Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak are full of such songs. Then there's also the song that many Leo fans consider, not just the finest moment off of Shake the Sheets, but from Leo's entire discography, the personal-is-political pep talk, "Me and Mia," featuring the ecstatic refrain: "Do you believe in something beautiful?/Then get up and be it."
What I'm getting at is that Leo's songs work best when they are about human struggles and interactions, but informed by a political sensibility. The more that politics become a song's focus, the less vital Leo's songs feel. A prime example of this is the hardcore punk inflected "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" off of Living With the Living. The song finds Leo sacrificing the humanity in his songwriting in the name of vitriolic anger. This song also points out another trend in Leo's songwriting: Leo's best songs tend to be informed by a punk sensibility, but never concern themselves too much with sounding "punk." The charm of Leo's earlier work from the 00's is that it synthesizes power pop, punk, folk, and straight up rock and roll into a brilliant and engaging concoction of undeniable pop music.
Which brings us to Leo's latest effort, the forthcoming The Brutalist Bricks. A good chunk of Leo's new album could be described as a satisfying return to form full of songs that, for the most part, leave politics in the background as a context within which the song's characters strive for a better way to live. Musically, the album trends more consistently toward power pop than fans might be used to, but that's okay because the melodies and hooks are consistently strong to match.
The album asserts itself immediately on its urgent opening track, "The Mighty Sparrow." Leo opens the song with a vigorous strum-and-howl, the lyrics pointing both to turbulent global politics and the necessity of human connection: "When the cafe doors exploded I reacted to/Reacted to you..." When the Pharmacists kick in after this brief introduction, they sound tighter and more excited than they have since "Me and Mia." The opening song's momentum carries through the albums first four tracks, resulting in two more highlights, "Ativan Eyes," and "Even Heroes Have to Die." Among the other highlights, there is the two-parted "Bottled in Cork," which moves from a punky, politically minded, power pop intro into a buoyant acoustic jam about sister's having kids and infectious optimism where "a little good will goes a mighty long way," before ending with an exhortation to "tell the bartender/I think I'm falling in love." And let's not forget the bright guitar pop of "Bartolemo and the Buzzing of Bees," built around a slick bass hook and an all around tight performance that reminds us why Leo's Pharmacists are such an impressive live act.
Despite this album's obvious successes, the end product comes off feeling a bit uneven due to a couple of puzzling song and production choices. The album's first cracks become visible on its fourth track, "The Stick." It's one of the "hardest" songs Leo has recorded as of late, and the end result sounds labored and forced. Then there is the album's difficult three song run of "Woke Up Near Chelsea," "One Polaroid a Day," and "Where Was My Brain?" The first takes itself too seriously, as Leo proselytizes, "we are born of despair/we're gonna do it together." "One Polaroid a Day," dealing with an unnamed characters' desire to "control everything," is built on an interesting, light, funk-type rhythm, but Leo sings the song through a hushed whisper in his uncomfortable lower register, making the song somewhat difficult to listen to. Finally, the Ramones-esque "Where Was My Brain?" isn't bad, exactly, but its goofy chorus and bright production feel more like b-side material than a strong deep cut off of a largely exceptional album. In some respects, the unevenness brought on by these songs tempts us to draw more explicit comparisons to Living With the Living, which suffered from wild variation between styles. Fortunately, despite its inconsistencies, The Brutalist Bricks is a much stronger album.
Trying to figure out why certain songs feel out of place on an album isn't an easy thing to do, so I won't try. Perhaps where The Brutalist Bricks goes wrong is in trying too hard to diversify its sound. In this album's case, the attempt took what could have been an out-and-out power pop masterpiece and made it "just" an excellent album with a few awkward moments. After years of listening to Leo, though, I suspect he's not all that worried with making another masterpiece, instead finding satisfaction in making a fun, passionate, sincere album that takes some risks. And, I can honestly say that no matter how little I care to listen to some of the album's weaker tracks, they won't detract from the finer moments. Make of that what you will, I'll chalk this one up as another win for Team Leo.
The Brutalist Bricks by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists is available on March, 9 in the U.S. on Matador Records. You can pre-order the album here.