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Not-So-Timorous He: The Thrilling Return of Ted Leo

The furious, hypercharged singer-songwriter hasn’t released a solo album in years—his return is a welcome reminder of his greatness and a signal of his growth

Ted Leo Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of Ted Leo’s best songs is called “The Ballad of the Sin Eater.” It’s a kind of punk-rock travelogue, a meditation on leaving your homeland, and, on his terrific third album, Hearts of Oak, he gave the song such a barebones arrangement and frantic pace that it sounds like it forgot a layer of clothing on its way out the door. Unfazed, it barrels ever forward: “Today I woke up uncertain, and you know that gives me the fits / So I left this land of fungible convictions, because it seemed like the pits.” Leo sing-speaks the lyrics, sounding, as he often does, a little like Joe Strummer with a thesaurus and an antihistamine prescription. It could have been “The Ballad of the Ugly American”: No matter where the narrator travels—Belfast, San Sebastián, Kigali—he is astonished when greeted with anything less than open arms. During the chorus, voices chant a mocking incantation: “You didn’t think they could hate you, now, did ya?” This song is from 2003. Although it was not a hit or even a single, it feels, in retrospect, like one of the defining rock songs of the George W. Bush era—and almost all of the others worth mentioning appear on Shake the Sheets, the formidable album Ted Leo would release the following year.

A veteran of the D.C. indie scene and the mod-punk band Chisel, Leo has, since his 2001 debut with his backing band the Pharmacists, established a reputation as the town crier of the underground. He wears his record-crate-digger influences proudly on his sleeve (his first two albums were named for Split Enz and Elvis Costello lyrics, respectively) and he sings with the wailing urgency of someone trying to wake a family whose house is burning down. Several years ago, when Aimee Mann started playing with Leo in a duo called the Both, she noticed something subtle and funny about his timing: “We realized that everything he played and sang was 20 milliseconds ahead of the beat. So there’s like that straining-at-the-leash quality to him. That is in everything. It’s in [his] music, but it’s in his life, too.”

Although The Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak remain cult classics, Shake the Sheets was Leo’s breakthrough: Released in 2004, it resonated with people searching for both straight talk and the comfort of community at a time when anyone questioning the Bush administration’s imperialist policy was all too often accused of being unpatriotic. Ted Leo gave voice to the patriotism of expecting more from America. “I’ll put it to you plain and bluntly,” he sang, “I’m worried for my tired country.” And yet there was that my—a flicker of hope in the way he hadn’t renounced his homeland entirely. To his fans, Leo modeled an elegance in navigating certain contradictions: how to be a punk lifer who also made enough money to sustain a long career, how to be a thinking American under administrations that would prefer you didn’t think too hard.

Though Shake the Sheets was not entirely a Bush record (“Heart Problems” gives a finger to big pharma; “Me and Mia,” disguised as a pop-punk sing-along, is one of the most empathic songs ever written about eating disorders), it captured a certain spirit of those times when, even in the left-leaning indie rock world, few artists were making political music. (“It was always a little disappointing to me that people weren’t engaging,” he told Stereogum recently, of that era. “The government was doing its best to keep the American people from engaging with it, and I think that probably had its ripple effects into the indie music scene.”) More than a decade later, it’s a time capsule, but the air inside feels bracingly fresh. In the first few days after the 2016 election, Shake the Sheets was one of the only albums I could stand to listen to. It acknowledged the weariness I was feeling but it also reinvigorated me for the well-trod road ahead: Songs like “Little Dawn” and “Walking to Do” are lived-in reminders that American progress is not a game to be won or lost but a long, ongoing conversation fueled by protest and dissent. “Well, I’m here, and you’re here, and it’s true,” Leo sang in a comforting tone at the end of the album. “There’s a whole lot of walking to do.”

In the days after the 2016 election, Ted Leo also sought solace in music; he’s said the first thing he wrote after Donald Trump’s victory was “Moon Out of Phase,” the sparse opening song on his new album, The Hanged Man. When, this past July, Leo announced the release of his first album in seven years, it felt like a perfectly timed return—a retired superhero donning his old tights to face down a new villain. But the things we want or expect from artists are not always what they need to express in that moment, and this album is far from “Ted Leo takes on Trump.” There are a few political battle cries on The Hanged Man, to be sure, but by and large the villains Leo’s fighting are deep within his psyche, more intimate terrain than he’s ever explored in his music before.

It began with a streak of record-label bad luck. Two of the indies to which Leo had previously been signed—Lookout! Records, which put out his first three albums, and Touch and Go Records, which released 2007’s Living With the Living—shut down within several years of one another. He signed to the veteran indie label Matador Records for his 2010 album The Brutalist Bricks, but when that record underperformed, and Leo started focusing on making music with the Both rather than another solo release, he and Matador parted ways. Leo has always been open about the practical, financial aspects of sustaining a career as an independent musician, but without a label or a tour on the horizon, he found that he was not exactly in a position to give advice to other musicians. He moved from New York to Providence, Rhode Island, where he and his wife could live more cheaply.

This May, in a remarkably candid profile for Stereogum, Leo, who turns 47 on September 11, revealed that he’d been grappling with some more private issues as well. He discussed two things he’d never publicly spoken about. The first was that, at a young age, he’d been sexually assaulted by an older boy who lived nearby as well as molested by a music teacher, and he was still undergoing therapy to deal with the lingering and long unspoken trauma. He also discussed his wife’s struggles with a rare autoimmune disease and how, in 2011, she’d suffered complications with a pregnancy and given birth prematurely to a daughter who did not survive. He tried to work in the aftermath of that loss, but the songs wouldn’t come. “At a certain point I actively tried and chose to embrace [the circumstances],” he said, “and accept this suspension of time and hibernate.”

The Hanged Man, the album that resulted from this long fallow period, is Leo’s attempt to retain control on a number of levels. It’s the first album he’s put out without a label; it was funded through Kickstarter. He had initial reservations (at first “it felt very hat-in-hand, it felt very demeaning, quite honestly,” he told Stereogum), but now that it’s paid off it feels like a new act of self-definition from an intractably independent artist. It’s also the first record that he produced himself, largely in his own studio; the whole thing has a sparse, retro sound that’s more reminiscent of Nick Lowe than any of Leo’s indie peers.

It’s a collection of songs about shaking off the final, lingering illusions of youth. The chorus of one is “The future is learning to wait around for things you didn’t know you wanted to wait for,” a verbose bit of wisdom that only someone with a melodic gift like Leo’s could turn into a hummable hook. “I used to believe we’d be comfortably settled by now,” he sings on another up-tempo jangler, confronting his financial rootlessness. “You’re Like Me” is a classic showcase of Leo’s flair for empathy, and knowing what he’s been through gives the song an undercurrent of unspoken darkness: “Drop to a secret that in silence you bore, you’re like me, you’re like me.”

The Hanged Man is less propulsive than Leo’s best records, and at times it feels low on that signature urgency, the production lacking a certain muscle. But whenever the energy flags, we’re never far from a classic Ted Leo jam zapping the record back to life; “Run to the City” in particular feels destined to be a live staple. The most stunning song on The Hanged Man, though, is the penultimate “Lonsdale Avenue,” a ballad that Leo sings accompanied by nothing but his electric guitar and quicksilver fingers. He sounds as weary as a Nebraska-era Springsteen character, but the words pour from his own heart. He sings about his daughter, an elegy to a life unlived: “I couldn’t protect her from life and all its pain / We called her many things, and those things she remained / But she taught me better love than I might’ve ever gave.”

The Hanged Man is named for the 12th tarot card in the Major Arcana—one of the most commonly misunderstood cards in the deck. Its name makes it sound like a harbinger of violence, tragedy, and death, conjuring as it does images of suicide or execution. But when you look closer, it indicates a moment of pause and self-reflection after a period of strain. “I cross through pain to discover the strength of sacrifice,” the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky imagines the Hanged Man saying in The Way of the Tarot, his classic book on the deck. “I reenter myself incessantly as if into an enchanted forest.” Leo’s new songs go deep enough to earn that title. They may not always have that “straining-at-the-leash” quality on which he’s made his name, but they sound appealingly content. No longer 20 milliseconds ahead of the beat. Right on it, finally in control.