Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – Living with the Living (5/5)
“‘Cause we're not trying to change when you tell me that I change
and when I try not to change, well then you tell me that I don't change
And there's not much I can change about that, sir”
- Some Beginner’s Mind, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
Ted Leo makes music to set your life to. While other bands are content with introspective navel gazing, and still a few others deal strictly with the political, Ted Leo finds a comfortable medium between the public and private, and, ultimately, he shows us there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two. Ted Leo attempts to wrap his arms around the immensity of our world. Leo’s success is credited to his ability to make his politics seem about the individual. For example, on The High Party he lets it slip that 9/11 is his birthday while ruminating on the politics of propaganda, and on Living with the Living the most strident anti-war song, Bomb.Repeat.Bomb, is told through the eyes of a bomber pilot. His politics sound less like sleep deprived manifesto than the ruminations of someone walking around the city without a destination.
On their fifth LP Ted Leo and those irascible Pharmacists construct a musical diorama of all the styles that have informed their sound. While in his previous albums these influences could be heard through parts of his songs, a bass line here or a lyric there, on Living with the Living, Leo has adopted these styles whole instead of piecemeal. The album feels like he’s making a mix tape of all his favorite styles but with his own music. Living with the Living runs through hardcore (Bomb.Repeat.Bomb.), Irish folk (Bottle of Buckie), reggae (Unwanted Things), and new wave (La Costa Brava) just to name a few. There are also genres you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Ted Leo, like funk (Lost Brigade) and R.E.M. style jangle pop (Colleen).
I think the reasons behind these genre specific congs can be found in Some Beginner’s Mind. The aforementioned quote shows the paradox of this album: Leo’s sound is evolving by devolving his songs to their genre origins. It makes a kind of sense. I read somewhere that this song is referencing the Zen concept of shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” I ran across this little quote by Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.” By rediscovering the sounds that first made him excited about music in the first place, Ted Leo is actually uncovering multiple ways of songwriting.
The strength of Leo’s political writing doesn’t end with his ability to make the political personal. The political songs on Living also make great use of analogy to attack the current war in the Middle East. Nowhere does Leo mention the second Gulf War. However, he has called Bomb.Repeat.Bomb. a song about America’s involvement in Guatemala, Annunciation Day/Born on Christmas Day references the Falkland War, and C.I.A. takes on our overly secretive institution. At the same time, the shadow of our current war can be felt throughout the album. Ted Leo is implicitly drawing attention to the fact our current war is not a finite problem, but rather a part of our systematic dealings with the rest of the world. His call for change is as far reaching as it is individualistic. Once again, Leo manages to wrestle a complex view of our world through seemingly disparate dichotomies.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t even touched upon whether or not the album is any good. Ted Leo is such a natural songwriter that his albums are always good, but more than that, Ted Leo’s work has become such a part of my life I’m less interested in the mostly boring question of quality, than I am interested in how his craft is evolving. Judging by Living with the Living I’m sure I’ll be returning to Leo’s latest album, whatever that album may be at the time, until he no longer puts music to disc.