Essential New Music: Ted Leo’s “The Hanged Man”

Ted Leo’s abundant, energetic live shows, astonishingly consistent knack for nimble, spiky pop/rock and general affability have earned him a seemingly bottomless well of goodwill, endearing him to indie rockers, hardcore kids and adventurous folkies alike. So it’s unsettling—if not a little troubling—to encounter the opening moments of his first outing in seven years (the first to be credited to Leo alone, sans Pharmacists). “Moon Out Of Phase” is a dour, brooding chug whose lyrics chronicle a state of absolute dejection: the crushing sense that “this world is not for you.” Turns out that the song was written on Nov. 9, 2016, which helps explain why Leo doesn’t quite sound his usual spirited, sanguine self. But it’s also not entirely a fluke.

The Hanged Man arrives after a period of significant personal and professional turbulence—alluded to obliquely throughout, and never more touchingly than on the stripped-down “Lonsdale Avenue”—which perhaps makes its sociopolitical commentary a bit acidic. There’s a peppy but rather graceless technological takedown called “The Future (Is Learning To Wait Around For Things…),” a skewering of gentrification and suburban exodus cycles on “Run To The City” and the deliciously caustic, Costellian “Little Smug Supper Club.”

Despite closing with bleak sci-fi cocktail dirge “Let’s Stay On The Moon” (“And watch the Earth go down”), the album’s not all doom and gloom—musically, at least. It’s peppered with sugary power-pop sing-alongs (“Used To Believe,” “You’re Like Me”) and a few snarling, rickety rockers (“Anthems Of None”). But these characteristically gratifying hits are interspersed with stranger, murkier excursions, rendering this the biggest mixed bag in Leo’s relatively streamlined oeuvre. It’s great to have Leo back in any form—and, frankly, heartening to hear him try out some new angles. But while there’s plenty to like here, and more to admire, he’s never made a record quite so challenging to love. Then again, nobody’s lovable all the time.

K. Ross Hoffman