Ted Leo has explored many different genres and aesthetics throughout the course of his 20-year career. He’s also experienced a variety of changes to his image and topics. The Hanged Man is the first album where Leo has billed himself as a solo artist without his longtime backing group The Pharmacists. On the album, he finds himself revisiting some similar themes from 2004’s Shake the Streets. The difference in 2017 on The Hanged Man is the bleakness of our social and political landscape is so apparent, that we feel Leo’s pain.
Following a period of relative hiatus between 2010 and 2016, Leo re-enetrs the forum with an ominous looking title and art cover for his most recent record.
As troubling as The Hanged Man sounds, Leo actually sounds more hopeful than most would think. He creates an irony not often seen in the industry by meshing upbeat guitar riffs with passionate lyricism. Leo has a lot to get off his chest, especially after a resilient period where he was searching for a fresh start in Rhode Island (where he recorded all of this album).
It’s clear from the beginning that Leo is disposing of his past demons on songs like, “Used To Believe,” “Can’t Go Back,” and “The Future (Is Learning To…).” At the same time, he seems to be convincing himself about certain things, such as his own political beliefs and how that’s affected his personal life thus far in his artistry. He’s definitely more introspective on these tracks, more so than on the intro single, “Moon Out of Phase.” On a track like this, Leo is more conscious of the world surrounding him, and he even gives his perspective on the country’s reaction to the election of President Trump.
Moments like these are when Leo is at his most detailed and straightforward especially on “Can’t Go Back,” where he becomes subdued and reflective on some of his past problems.
Leo flashes some savvy production as well in the first third of this project with he exception of “Moon Out of Phase, where the overproduction really masks the impactful message. Some of his lyrics may be missed if you don’t listen close enough.
The worst bit of mixing done on here though is definitely on the song “Run to the City,” where Leo does a poor job meshing different horn instruments with his electric guitar. The finished product is very annoying and disheveled compared to the other electronic nooks and crannies he uses on other tracks.
On the flip side, “Gray Havens” sounds a lot more cohesive and less raw with its instrumentation. I also like the harsh reality Leo portrays through his writing specifically during this moment. The same can be said about the beautiful love ballad, “Make Me Feel Loved.” Leo takes a break from the politically charged anthems, and brings a more softer side to his repertoire. He goes from throwing away his past troubles to needing the more simpler things in life such as love. It’s a powerful track that will tug at your emotions.
Nonetheless, there are songs that feel severely out of place, specifically the forgettable “William Weld in the 21st Century” where it seems like Leo has a backbone for a nice idea, but that plan never really gets well-developed. The attempt to portray an important and viable historical account is commendable though.
The final five or so tracks on here are a lot more cleaner when it comes to the production, and I think that there is a feasible effort put into the closing messages. “Anthems of None” is an up-tempo pop/punk single reminiscent of the Pharmacists’ past discography.
Meanwhile, the rawness to begin “You’re Like Me” is a nice addition to the creativity, and Leo continues with his social messages in a more abstract manner. Even though this track is more instrumentally dense, I can hear the cleaner mixing and attention to detail found within the song. As the album went on, Leo started to hone in on his sound a lot more, leading up to the climax of his journey on “Lonsdale Avenue.” On here, Leo performs a beautiful ode to one of his previous homes by calling it “one of his own.” It’s more emotionally driven than previous instances, and still really impactful.
Much like many artists today, Leo gives his own perspective on the state of our country in the very final song “Let’s Stay on the Moon.” In a more toned-down manner, Leo is using the moon as a metaphor to describe his current state of mind. He understands that the future is uncertain, but he is hopeful that we will be in a happier landscape.
It’s hard to look at a record titled,The Hanged Man and not think that it’s going to be pessimistic. In reality, Leo is reflective but not skeptical, and that idea is on full display multiple times throughout the album. Minus a few hiccups with the production here and there, this was a well-thought out and lasting album for the singer-songwriter.