Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Paul Silver

Consummate rocker Ted Leo has had a rough time of it over the past several years, since his last studio album, The Brutalist Bricks, came out in 2010. In that time he’s dealt with crises, both personal and professional. He wasn’t completely silent during the whole time. He released a live LP, did a project with Aimee Mann (The Both,) and released a couple of singles. But now Leo has returned with a full-lengther of music that ranges from power-pop to Americana, from lightness to darkness. A strong proponent of the DIY ethic, Leo eschewed a record deal with a known label and self-recorded and self-released this album, crowd-sourcing the funding to make the project a reality. The album opens oddly, with the dark, noisy, minimalist “Moon Out of Phase.” Featuring stark vocals and deep growling guitar, the track is unsettling. Like past works commenting on the Afghan War, this politically charged song seems to reference the unreality the morning after the last presidential election, when it became clear that Donald Trump had taken the electoral victory. “Used to Believe” is the next track, and is what I would have expected to open the album. It’s a really strong power pop track, perhaps the best of the fourteen on offer. “Run to the City” is another great power pop track and another favorite. “The Nazarene” has a deep brooding quality that appeals, and I love the intimate feel of songs like “Gray Havens,” with its sparse instrumentation and very present vocals. The track starts out with electric keyboard and Leo’s stark vocals, but halfway through the track a drum machine joins in and the arrangement grows thicker. Yet it still retains that intimate feel. It’s these quiet songs that I enjoy more than most others. “Lonsdale Avenue” is an Americana folk song, featuring Aimee Mann harmonizing with Leo over simple electric guitar. The lyrics evoke a resignation, a sadness and tiredness, a homecoming with no joy. “Let’s Stay On The Moon” closes out the album, and is another quiet one, reminding me of a blend of Elvis Costello and The Beatles. Not all the songs are perfect gems. Though Leo is a great songwriter, and I love the diversity on display, “Can’t Go Back” feels like a throwback to the 70s era of light pop of the sort I learned to avoid even at a young tender age, while “The Future (Is Learning To…) jumps a decade into the 80s, with a blending of new wave and power pop that just feels too close to top 40 sounds. On the whole, though, the diversity and sincerity shine through on most every track of this album.

Richard Quinlan

The first aspect of the new Ted Leo album one may notice is the lack of any Pharmacists, save drummere Chris Wilson on a handful of tracks. This is Ted Leo off on his own, baring his soul with heartbreaking intensity and fearless vulnerability. Leo has endured heartache and loss over the past several years in both his personal and professional lives, and The Hanged Man captures that pain over the course of thirteen sprawling tracks. While there is a collective catharsis that runs through the record, the songs themselves are, as per usual, highly distinctive. The opening “Moon out of Phase” features a thundering, droning, bass line that permeates the dread and darkness felt when one woke up on that world-rattling Wednesday morning after the recent Presidential election. The disquieting nature of Leo’s voice grasps the listener as he declares; “this world is not for you”, and the line can be applied to either those feeling lost and confused or the man who just inherited the most powerful position in the world. Leo is clearly reflecting back upon his life, taking stock of where he has been, and like so many, is completely unsure of what lies ahead. He speaks for people enduring a fear about the future that perhaps was not expected, as “Used to Believe” surmises. Despite its jangly, genteel nature, the song embodies frustration and self-doubt. A similar buoyant swing is heard on “Can’t Go Back” and “Anthems of None.” In both cases, the light-hearted pop aesthetic masks a seriousness and profound sense of insecurity.

Ted Leo has always had a dazzling penchant for storytelling, and this ability shines through most clearly on “The Future (Is Learning To…)” An adrenaline-fueled post-punk vibe and crunchy guitar riff surround Leo’s assertion that “the future is learning to wait around for things you did not know you wanted to wait for,” There are not many who could deliver such a line without mangling the words or making it seem trite, but part of Leo’s brilliance is the adroit quality of his linguistic skills. He paints stories on “The Nazarene” (“You would make a gift into a gun”) and “You’re Like Me,” whose fuzzy guitar and vocals seem to recall the horrors of sexual abuse. “Make Me Feel Love” is steeped in sadness, but is does not wallow there. Instead, there is a faint light of hope and a comfort found within Leo’s vulnerable vocals. This juxtaposition of hopefulness and hopelessness defines The Hanged Man, and makes this required listening regardless of one’s previous interaction with Leo’s work. For a man who has suffered much, perhaps The Hanged Man will provide a resurgence for a performer deserving of greater accolades.

Jim Testa

On November 9, 2016, America woke up to a new reality. Ted Leo remembers that day on "Moon Out Of Phase," the dirgey one-chord threnody that opens his first album in seven years, The Hanged Man: “Wednesday, wake up/Thinking about make-up/Barely make it into clothes/The creeping and the menace grows/Into a world of foes.” It's almost as if Leo is waking up after a long troubled sleep, one filled with the sort of nightmares only adults have. After the release of 2010's The Brutalist Bricks, Leo lost his record label, felt the financial pinch of declining record sales and tour receipts, and tragically lost the daughter he and his wife were expecting due to a miscarriage. Throw Trump into the mix and it's enough to send anyone into a tailspin. There are telling moments on The Hanged Man when Leo sounds as if it's all broken his spirit; "Used To Believe" and "Can't Go Back" bristle with pessimism and discord, while "“The Future (Is Learning to Wait Around for Things You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Wait For)” laments the stunted, thwarted expectations of his generation. It's a testament to Leo's indominable spirit that no matter how downcast the lyrics, his music retains its vibrancy and ability to lift us up, from the signature Thin Lizzy- stomp of "Used To Believe" to his invocation of heroes like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello on "Anthems Of None" and "Run To The City," to his putdown of liberal complacency, "The Smug Little Supper Club." On "The Nazarene," this Irish Catholic boy from the Jersey suburbs ruminates on Jesus and Judas, set to a McCartney-esuqe piano melody, while the seemingly upbeat "You're Like Me" hints at a history of sex abuse as a child, a topic he's broached in recent interviews. The album ends with two crushing tracks, "Lonsdale Avenue" (about the death of the American middle class) and "Let's Stay On The Moon," where his pain from the loss of his child is concrete and palpable.

When George W. Bush won a second term, Ted Leo bucked us all up, inspiring us to "shake the sheets," exorting us to "sing just to exist and resist," and reminding us that we "had a lot of walking to do." Now, in the age of Trump, Leo's best advice is, "Let's stay on the moon, and watch the earth go down?"

Say it ain't so, Ted. "The Hanged Man" in the Tarot, I'm told, can mean ultimate surrender, but it can also represent being suspended in time to meditate and change old patterns, a time of planning and growth leading to spiritual enlightenment. We're all wondering where we go next. The only acceptable answer is upward - which, let us not forget, is where the Hanged Man is staring. is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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