Old men and young rock

The podcast is taking a sick day this week, so all of you can have that half hour for stuff that matters, I guess. Despite Cold Cave's last-minute cancellation, the week ahead still holds a few gems, including a pretty compelling situation Wednesday night when Alec Ounsworth at High Noon, the Post-Racial Comedy Tour and preparing for a poli sci presentation all vie for my attention.

But I'm actually here to talk about something else—Ted Leo. After Living With the Living came out in 2007 and in anticipation of his latest, the newly leaked The Brutalist Bricks, it's time to revisit the old man and figure out why his last two records (I give Shake the Sheets the benefit of the doubt) have been so awful.

Olde Jake Victor made the interesting point that Leo had, what, 31 years to write Tyranny of Distance. Jonathan Richman had some 26 years to write Modern Lovers, and his career trajectory is flatter yet. Same story, different player. And while Hearts of Oak is arguably better than his debut, Leo hasn't written anything on par with either of those since. He might have just run out of ideas, and it'll take him another 30 years to come up with more.

But another idea that I'm mostly hung up on is that Ted Leo was never actually a punk rocker. His former band, Chisel, played pretty deliberate punk rock, but it had about the same success as his new stuff. Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak weren't punk masterpieces, but they came from similar roots (routes?). Leo covered Stiff Little Fingers, sure, but he wrote about rude boys. He played ska songs cloaked in his Irish heritage; which is to say, loud, fast and soaked in beer. But his songs aren't as angular anymore, and the linear riff structures lack the mobility of his songs of yore. He doesn't sound like the youthful voice he was, but the strained, old man he is. Where his songs used to have legs, they now have wheels. It's as if he no longer writes with the same joy and enthusiasm, dragging himself through the legwork instead of plunging into his passions.

His career should be compared to Robert Pollard or Elvis Costello, not Jonathan Richman. But Leo's not nearly as prolific as either of those two, and that's where we return to the 30-year gestation period.

I'm willing to live with political lyrics, but when his messages are as straightforward and played-out as his riffs it's unnerving, and confounds his problems. I don't mind be bludgeoned over the head by music, but it needs to come from an innovative or at least fresh perspective for me to care about it. No work of art is void of value, but a lot of art fails to progress or assert anything. And when it comes to rock 'n' roll, standing still is one of the most vexing things you can do.


  1. I've never really thought of Leo as a punk artist, it's a pretty disingenuous distinction. But his stagnancy is something that I'm coming to terms with, as well as his over-the-top political content. And by coming to terms with them, I mean that they are making him irrelevant to me.

    So I guess the million-dollar question is, and always has been, is it better to burn out, or to fade away?

  2. I agree it's disingenuous and I guess that's my point—I feel like he's ascribing it to himself. He's showing more notable influence of DIY or DC hardcore, and it's disconcerting in its formulaic, almost predetermined orchestration. He no longer writes songs on a whim about life, he writes songs from CNN, MSNBC, what have you. It's a bold (potentially libelous) assertion, but how else can you reconcile the transition from "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" to "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb."?

    It should be noted that songs like "The Unwanted Things" do capture the same Joe Strummer-gone-smooth swagger that won over his early recordings, but even "The Unwanted Things" lacks the forceful hook that would have made it anything less than filler on his first two records.

  3. Oh man! I was planning on starting my radio show with some Joe Strummer and the Mezcaleros this week! Thanks for reminding me.

    But yes, the punk moniker comes largely from Leo himself. He's a cool dude regardless, I just wish he wouldn't try so hard sometimes. 'Me and Mia' was one of the last songs by him that I really loved (and that was because of its poppy ambivalence).