Ted Leo is a consummate musician: technically skilled, compositionally ambitious and steeped in heritage. His assimilation of diverse influences—Thin Lizzy, The Jam, The Clash, The Specials, Billy Bragg—lends his records a timeless, traditional quality that eagerly defies the imperatives of a nation intent on forgetting the past. In an age when monumental events like the attack on Pearl Harbor serve as marginal backdrops for big-screen romantic dramas, the need for accurate historical preservation is dire. That Leo’s music is short on didactic catchphrases and top-loaded with more nourishing content demonstrates a real passion for examining world tensions with humility, grace and an unflinching eye. His vivid musical portraiture limns the tolls that dishonest political and economic systems exact on average human beings.
Leo’s albums are seamlessly contiguous and bereft of filler; they’re packed with punchy melodies and dynamic rhythms front to back. Nevertheless, each has had one standout song pinioning its center, a song that digs closer to the marrow. On Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ debut, The Tyranny of Distance, it was “Timorous Me,” a track that’s baroque Celtic swirls, giant chorus and winning melody resounded across the rest of the album. The essence of Tyranny’s leaner follow-up, Hearts of Oak, was perfectly distilled in its barnburner of a sixth track, the drum-and-bass rave-up “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” a carefully detailed account of anti-American sentiment abroad.
On Shake the Sheets, Leo’s vision has crystallized. The songs are shorter and tighter than anything he’s seared onto tape, and his complex melodic phrasing arrives pitch perfect. His characters stumble perilously below expansive skies, encroaching architecture and the detritus of war, plucking colorful motes of hope and gratitude from the chaos like flowers in a landfill. But here, the galvanizing standout track jumps from the middle to the very beginning—“Me and Mia,” a slingshot that sends the listener hurtling through the streamlined grandeur of the album’s remainder. The subtle evocations of its narrative seem to palpate the insecurities of privileged activists (“Don’t forget what it really means to hunger strike when you don’t really need to / Some are dying for a cause, but that don’t make it yours”) but soothes the same troubled conscience with its chorus, “Do you believe in something beautiful? / Then get up and be it.”
While much of the album hunkers down in sleek repetition (see the lean, syncopated “The Angels’ Share” and the slithering title track), the pronounced shifts in intensity of “Me and Mia” buoy it as an instantly memorable power-pop fist-pumper, not to mention a showcase for Leo’s commanding pipes. Far from apathetic mumbler or ironic provocateur, Leo sings like he means it—his voice is operatic, crisply articulated, and on songs like “Little Dawn,” graced with a P.J. Harvey-esque wah-wah quality. This unsentimental sincerity is what makes his music so convincing. With a candid urgency many musicians can only conjure when singing about the opposite sex (or just plain sex), Leo constantly observes and re-evaluates his—and, by extension, our own—place within the ramified tapestry of the human condition. At once confrontational and sympathetic, Shake the Sheets is the balm.