Until recently, I've harbored only one gripe with Ted Leo and The Pharmacists: The Tyranny of Distance (2001), that sweet bomb dropped on the playground of guitar pop, boasted an album cover closely resembling the Pacific Life logo. “That’s it,” I thought, “there's no unadulterated art left. Well, at least it wasn’t Victoria’s Secret again.” But all was forgiven when the music assured me Leo wasn’t dabbling in something so flimsy as mutual funds. His currency remains the immutable elements of any great pop song: chord change, vocal range and turn of phrase.
And yet, I’m compelled to tell anyone looking to own only the essential Ted Leo record that the much-lauded Hearts of Oak isn’t it. Of course, if you’re taking this kind of reductive approach, I might ask you, why Ted Leo at all and not Mellencamp? But that sort of inflammatory elitism obscures his fundamental irresistibility. When Leo’s on his game, he’s the life not just of the pop literati party but of anyone’s.
Take the album’s should-be leadoff track. There’s no better way to lament our country’s slow democratic suicide than through a litany of paranoia and conservatism followed by the innocent refrain, “Where have all the rude boys gone?” As is always the case with Leo, whose tireless, boyish vocals could buoy any lyrical millstone, there’s as much eloquent rallying as there is protest. “Bridges, Squares” offers image after image of a world in which we can still be agents of our fate, fate free from dogma and full of creativity:
“This is not the time to ossify,” Leo insists. “It’s not the end of wondering why. It’s not in your faith or your apostasy. It’s not the end of history.”
And if Leo doesn’t slay you with his heady, poignant verse, his axe is even sharper. Find me a guitarist whose licks better champion the virtues of terse, compact playing than Ted Leo’s. The rare solo, as on the Tyranny standout “St. John the Divine” or Hearts’ excellent title track, is virtually slingshot out of the very tension his economic playing builds. If less were ever more, it's right here.
So in spite of its many virtues, why does Hearts fall short of its predecessor? There are moments when it feels like summer reading. You know it’s good—your teachers insist—but it’s not where you’re at right now. You’d rather cop an easier buzz.
“The Ballad of a Sin Eater” is the biggest culprit of what I reluctantly call “The Elvis Costello Syndrome.” By the end of the song, instead of hitting “repeat,” you’re reaching for the thesaurus. Leo’s just leveled you with some behemoth of an abstraction—in this instance, call it a mythological travelogue and leave it at that—and you can’t even remember the chorus. Or was there one?
Fortunately, listens this onerous are few and far between, but their presence raises this related weakness: the occasional lack of hooks. Tyranny impressed precisely because it carried its smarts so effortlessly, as if the songwriting yoke really were easy. Meanwhile, Hearts seems to catch Leo straining a bit, which in turn asks more of the listener. The writing is more oblique and less emotionally evocative, and his vocals seem a tad streteched on the more demanding numbers.
But let’s not forget that this is a Ted Leo record. And if you don’t know what I mean, it’s time to find out. Hearts of Oak is still high-octane pop rock that leaves you feeling pleasantly windblown. It just takes a little less time to recover.