It's taken a couple decades, but Ted Leo has finally made his "Absolute Beginners." It took Paul Weller only five years to come up with that '81 Jam single that signaled his full embrace of R&B and soul. Now, on The Brutalist Bricks, longtime Jam fan Leo has dipped his own toes into soul's slink after years of exploring the pulsing backbeats of mod and punk — first with his '90s band Chisel and then with Ted Leo & the Pharmacists.
The album arrives on the heels of several years of career tumult, during which he's twice watched his established indie label crumble beneath him. That's partly to blame for his slowed output: Bricks is only his second album in six years after three albums between 2001 and 2004. The longer incubation periods produced a pair of eclectic releases — first 2007's Living with the Living, which Leo describes jokingly as his version of the Clash's Sandinista, and Bricks.
"In retrospect, I feel like the last two records were made under a lot of pressure," he says. "Not necessarily pressure to put out a record — that was there as well — but just the kind of dire oppression of living. Not that I exist in a state of bliss and happiness these days, but I think I approached this album finding myself outside the hamster-wheel cycle I'd been on for the previous decade. In a weird way, it opened up the songwriting for a little bit more of just me using my voice and not maybe sort of feeling like I had to say something."
While The Brutalist Bricks boasts several bristling rock tracks (notably chunky punk throbber "The Stick," hooky opener "The Mighty Sparrow" and the rocket-fueled rave-up, "Where Was My Brain?"), much of the album slackens the tempos and features instrumental embellishments. Leo really stretches his vocal chords. Even "Mourning in America," which starts out with a blazing rush, eases back on the throttle and loosens its hips in its second half. The same might be said of the album, which seems to open up around the midpoint with the beautiful "Bottled in Cork," which opens with a boisterous rumble and talk about a United Nations resolution. It quickly settles into a pretty melody, finally concluding with an admission of love.
Later tracks indulge an even gentler, more temperate spirit. The funky, hand-clapping "One Polaroid a Day" glorifies "the discipline to let things play," while the soul-soaked "Bartolomeo and the Buzzing Bees" recalls "Absolute Beginners" in sound and tone, closing with Leo singing, "I can feel the change coming on." As Leo nears 40, he's got a new attitude. He not only acknowledges his freedom to do whatever he wants, but his freedom from second-guessing what he does.
"It's not a devil-may-care attitude," he says. "It's a little bit of a confident insouciance, like, 'You know what? We're going to record these songs. We don't really have any plans for them. We're going to make the album we want to make, and I feel confident we'll be happy with the result.'"
Indeed, after starting the album in 2008 and feeling it wasn't turning out how he liked, he put recording on the back burner and played some shows without any new product to promote. He returned to the studio last August and September, cutting the entire album without a label, before Matador stepped in. Matador owner Gerard Cosloy complimented Leo's sincerity and intelligence, noting, "Rightly or wrongly, I often associate the genuinely sincere with the profoundly naïve."
Leo laughs at the quote.
"I am a pretty cynical person in a lot of ways, and writing sincere, hopeful songs is in a way my own personal therapy to make sure I don't wind up too cynical," he says.
He's successfully turned the corner, proving he can write hopeful songs without resorting to lovelorn paeans or protestations against the powers-that-be. As he sings on "Where Was My Brain," "We have the best of an imperfect world."