Ted Leo, Reluctant Hero of Our Times

The punk Everyman resurfaces just when we need him most.

Ted Leo (Photo by Mindy Tucker)

During these bleak times, we desperately need a hero.

Our presidency is occupied by a vainglorious, buffoonish opportunist who cannily exploits cultural divisions purely for personal gain. An ideal antidote to that me-first cynicism would be a selfless, principled man who has made a life of defending the disenfranchised — a person who picks up and elevates people on the margins, instead of heartlessly pushing them away.

Ted Leo, the irrepressible punk rocker who has been fighting the good fight for his entire 28-year musical career, is exactly that champion. After a seven-year absence, Leo returned this year with The Hanged Man, a gorgeous post-punk treatise that’s the most universal and personal work he’s ever produced.

And while the timing of Leo’s homecoming seems particularly serendipitous, the 47-year-old makes it clear he’s not out there celebrating these dark times simply because they present opportunities for creative windfalls.

“There are fucking people who are actually suffering right now, who are walking on a razor’s edge,” says Leo, who plays at Bimbo’s on Nov. 4. “The idea that we should be happy about that, because we’re going to get great art, pisses me off to no end. We all need art to help us through tough times, but don’t fucking ask for these kind of people to show up just so they can inspire it.”

While Leo may lament the misery that led us to this moment, there is no doubt that the release of The Hanged Man offers a refuge for his fans, many of whom wondered if their cherished punk icon would ever make a return to the main stage.

Following the 2010 release of The Brutalist Bricks, Leo retreated from the limelight, admitting in interviews that dwindling audience numbers and meager financial returns left him frustrated with the music industry. He resurfaced in 2014 as part of The Both, a successful collaboration between him and fellow singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, but for years, there was no musical output credited solely to Leo (or to his beloved backing band, The Pharmacists.)

Things started to change earlier this year, when Leo announced a Kickstarter campaign to fund his upcoming album (the would-be Hanged Man). He then bared his soul in a stirring, emotional interview with the webzine Stereogum, detailing how his wife had suffered a miscarriage and that he had been sexually abused by his piano teacher as a child — personal details never before disclosed.

The outpouring of support — from fans on social media to fellow musicians — was immediate and heartfelt, and that goodwill continued with the reaction to The Hanged Man, which has received glowing reviews.

“I don’t read record reviews and I never venture into the comments section, but the response I’ve felt during my live performances has been amazing,” Leo says. “I had been working out some of that stuff for a while, and I even began to address it with some of my music, so I that is why I started to begin explaining it and sharing it. Actually speaking about it wasn’t necessarily cathartic, but the aftermath has been.”

Reflective of his recent candor, The Hanged Man is a heartbreaking, contemplative piece of art. Songs like “Used to Believe” and “Moon Out of Phase” tackle heavy issues like disillusionment and depression, but the real showstopper is closer “Let’s Stay on the Moon,” a mournful piano ballad where Leo whispers, “We had a daughter, and she died.”

While the record brims with shattering personal couplets, this is still a Ted Leo album, which means plenty of woke, defiant political talk. A strident leftist and universalist, Leo rails against greed and corporate cowardice on tracks such as “Little Smug Supper Club” and “Anthems of None.”

The lyrical content is nearly overshadowed by its sonic output, some of the most adventurous work of Leo’s career. A cerebral, brainy auteur in the vein of late-’70s British stars like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Paul Weller, Leo runs through his range of influences on The Hanged Man, trotting out elements of ska, cow-punk, idyllic folk, industrial rock, and shimmering post-punk in a skillfully sequenced array.

Overall, the album is an embodiment of Leo’s noblest impulse: the idea that, if we all just took the effort to step inside someone else’s shoes, the world could be a better place. In this age, when each new media report induces another smack to the forehead or a dispiriting sigh, Leo is here to remind us that empathy is the emotion most in need of embrace.

“When you think about what’s happening now, rage certainly comes into play, and then there’s also exasperation,” Leo says. “But mostly, I think we need to show we care. We have to show a desire for reaching out — to signal to others that we actually care about them.”

Sentiments like that prove that Ted Leo didn’t ask for these times, but he was made for them.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Saturday, Nov. 4, 9 p.m., at Bimbo’s, 1025 Columbus Ave. $20-$45; 415-474-0365 or bimbos365club.com.

View Comments