New inspiration fuels Ted Leo’s solo work
Ted Leo had been making records for more than two decades when his career took a turn toward the unknown a few years ago. He was falling out with his old record label and was now in his 40s, a time when many rockers start to run on artistic fumes.
Instead, Leo found new inspiration. He didn’t quite reinvent himself so much as dig out new modes of expression in his songwriting, first through a collaboration with Aimee Mann in the Both in 2014, then on a sprawling self-released solo album, “The Hanged Man,” which came out this month.
Leo developed a bond with Mann when he opened a tour for her as a solo act a few years ago. Their mutual admiration turned into a collaborative album, “The Both,” that pushed both artists into fresh territory. “Aimee helped meunderstand what I could do in a song,” Leo says. “She made me aware that there could be options, and it opened up some things for me, made me aware of strengths I didn’t really know I had.”
“The Both” energized both artists and stands as a peak moment in both their careers, a rare instance of t wo songwriters with strong i ndividual solo voices creating a seamlessly blended whole that sounds like nothing either had previously released. Leo brought some of that creative j uice i nto “The Hanged Man,” the most ambitious album of a career that stretches back to the late ’80s. It includes the energetic punk and power pop on which Leo has built his career but also stretches into lusher, more elaborately arranged orchestralpop songs and mood pieces.
The arrangements employ more elaborate back- ing harmonies, incorporate keyboards more extensively, add saxophone and strings, and dial down some of the tempos. The richer sound contrasts with the more one- dimensional, high-energy approach that informed many of his previous albums when he was billed as Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. This time he recorded most of the album by himself at his home studio in Rhode Island, with help from a few musicians and backing vocalists.
The approach lent itself to an album loaded with songs that dealt with heavy personal subjects. In the past few years, Leo and his wife lost a child they were expecting due to miscarriage, and in a recent interview with Stereogum, Leo revealed that he had been abused as a child by a piano teacher while growing up in New Jersey. In songs such as the brooding yet beautiful “Let’s Stay on the Moon” and “Lonsdale Avenue,” he sounds more vulnerable than ever, with music to match. Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.
Singer-songwriter Ted Leo collaborated with Aimee Mann on the album “The Both,” and it energized both artists.