Nearly three years have elapsed since Ted Leo's last album, Shake the Sheets, a hiatus that can be attributed partly to Lookout Records' demise, partly to a ceaseless touring schedule, and partly to other projects (Leo's been writing music for a play about United Fruit Company, the CIA and Guatemala). As a result, Living with the Living was written over an abnormally long period, one in which Leo had leisure to think about many different kinds of music -- reggae and punk, pop and soul, Celtic folk, hardcore and Jam-style mod-rock. So, where elements of these styles have been lodged in previous Leo albums, in the ska-style backbeat of "Rude Boys" or the Irish lilt of "Bleeding Powers," here they take over entire songs.
That means that Living with the Living is Leo's most diverse album yet, a sort of musical "This is your life," where the artist revisits styles and forms that he's loved in the past. Sometimes these influences are a little too recognizable (the guitar lick in "Army Bound" sounds an awful lot like the Kinks' "Victoria," and "Who Do You Love" shares something integral with "I Fought the Law"), but for the most part, this is a fantastic album, eccentric but polished, passionate but fun.
As always, Leo's lyrics are sharply political, with images of war and oppression scattered liberally among his songs. Early on, "Sons of Cain" sets the tone, its Mescaleros-rocking beat and scratchy rapid-fire guitar pacing verses about the waste and loss of war. Later, the blistering, hardcore-leaning "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" encases incisive lyrics about bomb-throwing flyovers in a bayonet thicket of distorted guitars, only breaking for the all-hands shout of "Bomb / Repeat / Bomb." The song's written from the perspective of a flyboy, zooming high above green jungles, oblivious to the carnage below, and it's as carefully constructed as a short story. The album's very anti-war, but listen carefully and you'll notice that it's not all anti-Iraq-war. "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" is taken from the play Leo's been working on, and "Annunciation Day/Born on Christmas Day" has a Falklands reference. All wars, all intrigues, all great powers meddling in places that don't concern them - it's fair game here.
Because he's one of the few credible political punks left anymore, it's tempting to read Leo's album as a manifesto, and yet, a good third of the album's tracks are more personal than political. "Colleen" is, quite possibly, his most blatant pop song ever, a breezy, Squeeze-esque portrait of an attractively difficult girl. "Bottle of Buckie" is a lovely, Pogues-y personal reminiscence about good friends and bad liquor, so Irish that it even makes room for a pennywhistle.
All of which brings us to what may be the main complaint about Living With the Living, the one-of-each eclecticism that brings us a pop song, an Irish song, a hardcore song, a soul song and a reggae song, along with the hard-strummed pub punk Leo is known for. Well, why not? Leo's been listening to these kinds of music all his life, and they've turned up in bits and pieces in his work before. Living with the Living is a loving tribute to all the music that's inspired Leo, but it's also principled, original and carefully executed. The genre songs catch you off guard the first time you listen, but quickly melt into the texture of this entertaining and thought-provoking album. After six full-lengths, a live album and a smattering of EPs, and a lifetime of hard-rocking punk shows, if Ted Leo wants to write a reggae song, who are we to stop him?
By Jennifer Kelly