Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Brutalist Bricks
By Conrad Amenta | 8 April 2010
Even if only going as far back as Chisel, which is to say long after Ted Leo began writing his credibility into the DNA of New York and DC music scenes, then he’s still been penning variations on his mod-punk revivalism for fifteen years. And unless you count the poorly conceived experimental tape loop album Tej Leo (?), Rx/Pharmacists (1999), he’s been remarkably consistent about it too; he’s topically engaged, urgent, still very much the man who wrote “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” “Little Dawn,” “Sons of Cain,” and “Parallel or Together?”; still the man who wrote the only convincing song about health insurance that I’ve ever heard, “Heart Problems”; still ceaselessly touring and hamming it up and genuinely meaning it.
So it seems like any criticism of The Brutalist Bricks is less of the artist, who continues on his prescribed way, than of the genre itself. What minor course corrections were plotted when Shake the Sheets (2004) went arena-sized, or when Living With the Living (2007) balanced post-war anger with a stomper called “A Bottle of Buckie,” were small compared to the dense (but not that dense) cultural history to which Leo seems so faithful. The album is comprised of equal parts comfort and anger, which in turn inform punk rock, and the degree to which you still find that sustaining will go a long way to determining if Leo’s sixth album, and first for Matador, is a lean animal or an old dog.
I tend to err on the side of the former, to assume that this particular forty year old’s longstanding dedication to three-chord propulsion is less a genre exercise than a decision made years ago that the simplicity of these forms is what conveys this lyrical content with the greatest immediacy. But the decision backs Leo against the wall, limiting even those few songs where he takes minimal steps afield to excess status: where it’s hard to admit that a balls-out number like “Mourning in America” is complacent because of how aggressive it sounds, a similarly straightforward song like “One Polaroid a Day” is easily skipped as something that passes for experimentation in such a self-limited genre. The same thing happened with the reggae-tinged “The Unwanted Things” or “A Bottle of Buckie” on Living With the Living: even with all of their obviousness and closeness to stylistic signposts, the occasional songwriter’s indulgence is cast as the anomaly in Leo’s ongoing adherence to the punk project. The Brutalist Bricks, for its moments of torrential fury, sags when Leo occasionally writes outside of an exhausted but all-encompassing formula.
Worse is that some songs do little more than imply a songwriter with the limited palette of a punk politico. “Woke Up Near Chelsea” is a piano clunker with lyrics in the pattern of Billy Bragg, who, with his one-size-fits-all agitation, is essentially Leo’s lyrical progenitor. Leo yells his guts out with wincers like “Well we all got a job to do / And we all hate God / Well we all got a job to do / We gonna do it together.” I suppose one is required to have an ear for this sort of fervor for it to make any kind of sense, but for me it strains the parameters of discourse, casts the punk exercise as totalitarian and its alienation as simply not that believable. What is this job that we’ll all do together? Does identifying it even matter, or is the zeal with which it’s sung about actually the point? How long can a listener sustain himself on that zeal? Surely it’s not six albums.
Where the occasional genre sidestep is the sound of Leo willfully shooting himself in the foot just to keep from releasing a Thermals record, he’s been great about working with different producers and modulating his sound around what is essentially an unchanging formula. Where Hearts of Oak (2003) was lovably DIY, and Shake the Sheets huge and polished, the band seems to have finally slotted itself into a tuneful, comfortable niche—a space that makes “Ativan Eyes,” with its descending chorus chant, and the acoustic strum of “Even Heroes Have to Die,” sound sort of timeless, even as their conventions are repeated ad nauseum by countless other bands. Even if Ted Leo’s discographical arc can’t help but descend into an echo chamber of limited returns, there’s no faulting the execution, which is comprehensively conceived and performed.
Ted Leo is approaching that space reserved for punk’s two-dimensional paragons, its monks who remain celibately ignorant of the music world’s diverse pleasures: he’s never compromised, never sold out, and never said anything less than exactly what he felt needed to be said. Which in some circles means that he’s a principled man, a person whose consistency and skill should be propped up as ideals to which emerging artists should aspire. It’s hardly difficult to get on board with this. For others, however, it means that Leo has never left his comfort zone, never moved beyond the occasional impulse to write something that approximates reggae or new wave. I’m not sure where an artist like him goes from there, but it’s seeming less and less likely that we’ll hear anything from Leo but exactly what we expect to hear from him—for better or worse. For a political artist, I can’t think of a worse death than predictability.