Over the course of six albums with the Pharmacists, Ted Leo has traced out a blueprint of how to live as an artist, a person, and as a friend in the 21st century. When his breakthrough second album, The Tyranny of Distance, was released in 2001, Ted Leo was heralded as the savior of post-hardcore spirit in the wake of the rise of pop emo and the breakup of Fugazi. In 2003, he was desperately trying to mobilize like-minded young Turks with Hearts of Oak. In 2004, he was coming to terms with personal shortcomings in his still undervalued Shake the Sheets. The only pseudo-misstep came with 2007’s Living With the Living, an occasionally spellbinding but woefully inconsistent album that was recorded while his wife was undergoing chemotherapy.
In 2010, with a new bassist in Marty Key and three years removed from the self-described worst year of his life, Leo has crafted the kind of album that contains all the ambitions and fully realized dreams he was aiming for on Living with the Living. Like all Ted Leo albums, The Brutalist Bricks is a mix of political defiance, personal growth, emotional honesty, and a heartfelt self-sacrifice. What The Brutalist Bricks has that other Ted Leo releases don’t is the kind of confidence that can only be forged by nearly two decades of performing and recording. Unlike just about all of his mid-’90s peers, Leo has successfully become a career musician on his own terms, and unlike many similar artists, he’s developed something of a heroic quality. At this point, Leo’s not going to take his audience for granted, but he’s also allowed more room to breathe as a bandleader like few punk bands ever have.
A track like “Woke Up Near Chelsea” is typical of those on The Brutalist Bricks. After an opening piano lick, Leo sings in his signature yelp, “Well we’ve all got a job to do, and we all hate God/ But we’ve all got a job to do/ We’re gonna do it together.” The song is a verse-chorus-verse power ballad disguised as something more stream-of-conscious, and it’s one of the more muscular songs on the album. “Woke Up Near Chelsea” is the kind song that’s nearly impossible for any musician raised on D.I.Y. ethics to pull off these days, much less in a manner this graceful. On that track, and tracks like “Bottled in Cork” and “Last Days” (one of many tracks with subtle references to punk archetypes), Leo almost works like James Brown, willing his band to go directions that only a hard-working music man can control.
Of course, the The Brutalist Bricks still has standout tracks in the vein of Leo previous work. “The Mighty Sparrow” is a starkly perky opener for novices, but it’s as perfect a melodic and emotional launching point for The Brutalist Bricks as “Me and Mia” was for Shake the Sheets. Meanwhile, “Even Heroes Have To Die” follows up on the desperation Leo showed seven years ago with “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” Here, Leo acknowledging the short lifespan and foolhardiness of youthful aggression, but knowing that the causes that punk used to stand for haven’t been destroyed even as they’ve gotten garbled.
To be fair, there are still a few punk burners on The Brutalist Bricks that could cause something of a hold-up. It’s difficult to win over everyone when you have tracks like “Mourning in America,” “Where Was My Brain?,” and “The Stick” (the latter of which confirms just how difficult it can be to musically recall the Minutemen). Despite Leo’s eclecticism, he’s still a product of the Dischord hardcore scene. While it has solidified Leo’s sound, it localizes him to a time and place, despite all his eclecticism.
In the past few years, I’ve had more than a few discussions with young college students who admit to “still having a soft spot” for Ted Leo, or who like Ted Leo “in spite of themselves.” It’s a black mark on the legacy of bad pop emo that Ted Leo could be considered a guilty pleasure; he’s closer to the opposite of whatever a guilty pleasure is. But as the pop world comes to realize that the term “emo music” is ultimately redundant, Ted Leo has shone through on The Brutalist Bricks like the wise older brother you never valued as a kid. He’s smart enough to know what’s to be done, sincere enough to do it free of distraction, and nice enough not to impose his will on you. Ted Leo has literally seen his success as an artist become a life or death experience, and he’s here to tell you how to treat it like a grown-up.