Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – Brutalist Bricks (5/5)
In his anthemic, chorus crushing song, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” Billy Bragg sings, “Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is/I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.” Within the narrative of the song, the question is posed to Billy during the last call moments at a pub, and it carries a sense of drunk cynicism. It is also the question that Ted Leo, a musician deeply influenced by Billy Braggs punk and politics, has been posing to himself, both in song and interviews, for most of his career. Can an artist deliver the complications of politics through the streamlined joys of a pop melody? It’s a question that every artist who trades in choruses and hooks that go straight for the mainline must ask. After all, if politics, as the philosopher once said, are an ideology that separates the individual from his or her real condition, then can the pop music, with its inherent brevity and disposability, perform the work of impacting a listener’s consciousness enough to make these conditions known?
At times Ted Leo has suggested in interviews that pop music can’t accomplish this kind of consciousness shifting, but, rather, all it can hope to do is preach to the converted. This tension between wanting to craft a political anthem within the confines of pop music shifts to the forefront of his latest album, The Brutalist Bricks, and is perhaps best exemplified by the song “Ativan Eyes.” The song begins with a call to action, sprinkled with a little Karl Marx, but, before even the first chorus, abruptly shifts into the idioms of a love song: “The industry’s out of touch / The means of production are now in the hands of the worker / But I just want to be touched by your expert hands.” Here the metaphorical hands of labor are transformed into the hands of that oldest of rock and roll traditions, a woman to pine for. The mash up between politics and pop is jarring. The split roles of “Ativan Eyes” mirror the forked expectations for popular rock and roll: those who are listening for tidbits of lyrics to live their lives to and those who want something to that will move their feet.
Fittingly, Ted Leo name checks the stridently leftist hardcore band Flux of Pink Indians part way through “Ativan Eyes,” and longtime fans of Leo will notice the influence of hardcore music on Brutalist Bricks. Both “The Stick” and “Where Was My Brain?” are more aggressive than anything Ted Leo has previously put to disc, even the consciously stripped down Shake the Sheets. Both songs play at one point or another to the nostalgia for music that, like Flux of Pink Indians, could impact how one sees the world during the most vulnerable time in our life, our teenage years. On “The Stick,” a song that moves along with some clipped chords but on more than one occasion threatens to devolve into feedback and noise, Ted Leo intones, “Play an ancient mixtape, try to break from your routine,” suggesting the power inherent in returning to the same music that once shifted how we saw the world. And on “Where Was My Brain?,” he sings “We had the best of an imperfect world” in one of Leo’s perfectly placed anthems.
Ted Leo’s interest in hardcore careens across the album and finds its way into songs that aren’t as readily impacted by the genre as “The Stick” and “Where Was My Brain?” The entire album bursts with the type of energy that most bands manage to infuse on their first or second album, but can rarely muster on their sixth release. The album opener, “The Mighty Sparrow,” begins, as if mid-sentence, with the statement, “When the café doors exploded, I reacted too / Reacted to you” and doesn’t let up over the course of two and a half minutes, which includes two false endings and an instrumental outro. The song “Mourning in America” not only references that all time favorite target of hardcore punk bands, Ronald Reagan, but also backs the verses with frenetic guitar play. The song is a testament to Ted Leo’s ability to craft political songs that speak to the moment while referencing the past. Similarly, Living with the Living, often took aim at the Iraq War by circumventing it altogether and choosing instead to recall America’s forays into reshaping South American politics (a move that hasn’t borne out all that well since several of our American backed “candidates,” including Augusto Pinochet, have found themselves in front of war crimes tribunals).
Even though Brutalist Bricks shares a more cohesive sonic thesis than the stylistically diverse Living with the Living, Ted Leo hasn’t lost the ability to change genres with the same ease as changing a radio station. Leo has transformed “One Polaroid a Day” from the radio ready tune fans recognized at his live show into a slow burn funk number. For many fans this seems like a perplexing decision. Why, after all, might Ted Leo weaken one of his catchiest songs with an, arguably, unnecessary genre shift? We might explain this move by pointing towards Leo’s anxiety that pop music’s slickness is at odds with any potential message. That, or maybe he was listening to a lot of Curtis Mayfield when it came time to record the song. “Tuberculoids Arrive in Hops,” a meditation on the importation of disease to the New World from Europe, is a quiet moment of lo-fi folk that would sound at home on a Sebadoh album.
Perhaps all a musician can really do provide a message to those who are already ready to hear it. A song, after all, is unlikely to change your life. That doesn’t mean Leo doesn’t try, and there are plenty of rousing numbers we have come to expect from Ted Leo. Chief among these is “Bottled in Cork,” a song that narrates Leo’s excursion abroad, and, although it begins discussing the United Nations, the story moves quickly from the political to the personal. In a sense it is the diametric opposite of Heart of Oak’s “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” whose chorus was “You didn’t think they could hate you.” “Ballad of the Sin Eater” told of expatriate adventures following America’s reaction to 9/11, but unlike that earlier song, “Bottled in Cork tells of growing older and befriending the locals. The song is a reminder that, if nothing else, the converted need to be reminded now and then that the conditions of the world are not stagnant and with a little faith and a lot of work things can change. Whatever side you fall on the pop and politics debate, we might ask ourselves what our outlook on politics and life might be if we had not discovered X band at Y moment in our life.