Ted Leo and Aimee Mann are two great singers and songwriters who come from vastly different worlds. Mann was an MTV-feted new wave veteran around the time Leo was getting his first basement punk bands going. And yet, for years now, they have found common ground. Back in 2014, they formed a duo called the … More »
Braids’ Raphaelle Standell and Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast are among the musicians who have openly criticized Danish company TC Electronic for the use of sexist language surrounding their “Pussy Melter” guitar products. The guitar pedal is a collaboration with Satchel, the guitarist for comedy metal band, Steel Panther (who have songs with … More »
On Feb. 11, 2003, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists released Hearts Of Oak, arguably the best album of Leo’s storied career — though with a discography that stacked, you could make a case for several releases as the best. Regardless of which Leo record is your fave, this one is an album fully worthy of … More »
In this space in past years, I’ve usually written about which music-video directors had the best years. It’s a variation of the auteur theory, as visionaries like Nabil and Hiro Murai have used artists as vehicles for their ideas and approaches. This year, though, it feels like the artists themselves who are driving things, and … More »
Earlier this year, Ted Leo came back with The Hanged Man, his first album in seven years. Around the time the album came out, those Stereogum staffers who work in the New York office were lucky enough to hear Leo play a solo-acoustic set in the office lobby, and, by all accounts, it … More »
The Hanged Man
One day dressing for the rock show later that night, I was dancing in the bathroom. I caught out of the corner of my eye a little of what I looked like and I thought, why mirrors?
Yes sure and duh: of course mirrors. We spend so much time looking off we need something to reflect on. Check me out! Does this shirt make me look like me? Too many buttons, unbutton a button. Loosen the sleeves, okay that’s, oy. That’s not, okay, should probably start running everyday. Face is? Hair is? Hair stupid, shirt okay, A- pattern, B fit. Ah jeez jeeps is there time to get a run in right now?
Mirrors make us scrunch up sometimes, but they’re there to offer our eyes a chance. World orientation means knowing what we look like in scope of other stuff, how I am and will be looks different from how I was. We’ll shift and sift in light of our selves, those most precious products of humanity. We dance and sing, “You’re like me/ You’re like me;” mirrors help us check in on us.
The occasion and severity of the scrutiny varies, but we keep the mirror up and around because we want to check in our selves sometimes, want to resemble what we’ve seen in dreams and imagined being. We want to be the images that keep us engaging in the stuff outside of the mirror frame. We want to be the images we strive to exist as; we want to assert change over what repulses us. And undressing, it’s an undress that keep us looking. A moon can dictate tides and moods, but it’s a moon’s mirrorness that keeps us looking up. That’s our light we’re striving toward. Reflection is something like real-time legacy. We have mirrors because we are not mirrors. We give off light. We are brilliant and unstable things, and we veer.
But mirrors swing and sway. All that glitters is not what’s always given off. Moons unstick in their phases. Reflections wobble. Perspective splays. “Moonlight shattered on this stretch of sea/ How many times I’ve stood here mapping things out differently.”
The line that separates moons and mirrors and punk music is a pretty fine thing, probably something that can only be articulated by the writer of reviews and not punk music. But from the first dropped-me chords of The Hanged Man opener “Moon Out of Phase,” a certain self-investigation of orbiting meteors and extended metaphor fits. Metaphors are complicated proposals for resolving simple problems. Metaphors are like tarot and punk music, simple stuff folded and refolded until it looks clear. “Moon Out of Phase” is a simple composition, a couple retreaded clomps of guitar under Ted Leo’s voice. Somewhere near the end, sleigh bells hint at an expanded sound, but the precedent for The Hanged Man is set in brutal duet, guitar and voice. Something has set the moon off kilter. The reflection doesn’t align with what the eyes want; “The creeping and the menace grows.” Leo harmonizes with refractions of himself, only to land on the admission “This world is not for you.” It’s downright despair.
The Hanged Man is a story in twos, an ache’s echo and a mirror for the moon’s motion. Punk music, the gospelled stuff that springs from Leo’s guitar and voice, reflects the world it exists in while presenting opportunities for disruption and locomotion. The Hanged Man absorbs the worries of a world (Leo’s and ours) and reflects on it, rolling with the inconsistencies and fractures to make something better. If you see the moon’s off and odd movements, sing something that moves yourself from the past to the next. “Used to Believe” sees past philosophies and innocences (“I used to believe in something/ Like a magical chemical spark”) not as something to be reclaimed or mourned, but rather as something to see and move from. Mirrors and punk music reflect what is, but both encourage moving out into the world, the chorus of Leos crossing each other chiming “down, down down down down” seeing something to despair but refusing to wallow.
“Can’t Go Back” is more nostalgia-rejection, the sound of processing and vowing to move forward. “We held our fortunes in a paper cup/ How many drops drip-dripped away until it dried up/ But I can’t go back,” Leo sings over purposefully retro’d Staxy brass (in that voice like traffic clearing and throwing a baseball — Ted Leo is a very very good singer). Even genre-nostalgia is unsettled. “Can’t Go Back” is a good sound from a past but: can’t go back.
And when next song “The Future (Is Learning To Wait Around For Things You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Wait For)” bangs out of the gates, all fuzz box and time barometer, it rings that The Hanged Man is about a lot of things but cored with a couple rotten things from the past. Ted Leo caught himself in the mirror and looked up scared. You can read the features where he circles and unwinds these things, but they’re here in the wax too, in the saxophone close to “Run to the City” that almost runs off the rails and calls the party early. In interview and on record, Leo relays a life lived in the scope of other lives, with an attention to the small things that break and make us. What motivates The Hanged Man toward greatness is both this attention and Leo’s refusal to retreat, either into an imagined past or a delusional future. The world-obliterated “Lonsdale Avenue,” “Pierced with ever pixel/ Shame, but that’s the game/ Left over and out here/ I’m not asleep again” sees just how much loss can strip our bodies of and maintains, “But this man who’d gladly move a million mountains/ Must get outside and shovel snow.”
I don’t know what it’s like to suffer a late-term miscarriage (“We called her many things, and those she’ll remain”). I don’t know what the pieces look like (“Moonlight shattered on this stretch of sea/ How many times I stood here mapping how it shattered me”) or what it’s like to pick them up (“We had a daughter and she died, in 2129/ And I’m barely alive”). But The Hanged Man, reflected light from a life I am not, shares despairs and then demands, by its existence and shouts, steps forward away from our traumas. The song clanged here is the punk stuff that lets you see the reflection of other humans. That The Hanged Man is willing to elevate past traumas in planetary terms presents a way forward past mourning. Watching from outer space as a world goes down, like in the lunar choir chorus of “Let’s Stay on the Moon,” isn’t a fixed solution to loss or abuse or hate. Mirrors and moons, useful as reflectors and maps, will not heal your heart. But reconciliation, by terms meditative (“Gray Havens”) and exacting (“You’re Like Me”), optimistic (“Make Me Feel Loved”) and unspooled (“Lonsdale Avenue”), is a way toward hope.
The Hanged Man is hopeful punk, the sound of a life reflecting and resolving. It hums with a love of noise and a protonic refusal to despair, “the assurances of a still-flickering hope.” En route to something like calm, the piece noisily rejects venues of the past (career-arc mythologies of thens, used to’s and innocences of last year’s sounds) and forces its looker and maker to stab new sounds at some of the same traumas. It shows me how I haven’t hurt yet. It helps me think I might get past it. The Hanged Man encourages dancing and crying, the rock show, and the embrace of a lover. Heart and hurt, we step on. When you ask your mirror, why are you here? Being hopeful, where does it come from? it will sing back in that clarion tenor, lilt a little and then breathe:
“I think about it anew every time I get asked that. I come up with the same answer: just, literally, from writing those songs.”
I once got busted trying to steal a magazine from my hometown library. The 8/8/91 issue of Rolling Stone apparently had one of those sensors on the last page and it beeped from my backpack on the way out. I was gonna bring it back. I just wanted to take it home to read the … More »