Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have always walked the line of pop punk with respect and care, blending their backgrounds of R&B and soul with Leo’s highly literate lyrics to create a sound that is both catchy and thoughtful. Leo’s trademarked scorching guitar riffs and soothing falsetto made Hearts of Oak (2003) and Shake the Sheets (2004) quiet top-fivers in critics’ year-end picks. Now the group returns with their fourth full-length album Living with the Living, which emphasizes Leo’s political message more than previous efforts but still incorporates the group’s addictive guitar work and pop structures.
Living with the Living is a marathon – nearly one hour in length – making it much longer than any prior album from the group. A number of songs signal identity crisis. “Annunciation Day/Born on Christmas Day” is a short, mind-numbing track, essentially just a shot at the government that sounds like a bad b-side at best. “A Bottle of Buckie” is a joyous and melodic country-esque tune that bizarrely places a jovial Celtic flute riff amongst Leo’s varied rants about the “bullshit government” and bombings.
Though he has always been a man of political awareness, incorporating subtle, activist lyrics in his tracks, Living takes Leo’s sentiments a bit too far. “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb” is by far the most hardcore song the band has ever attempted, as Leo laments on the depressing, post-Orwellian modern world. A cyclone of loud guitar meets Leo’s vocals as he ditches his pleasing falsetto in favor of a grating and angry tone, “And when the crying starts / You won’t have to see the bloodshot eyes turn red / And when the dying starts / You won’t have to know a thing about whose dead.” Though the song is injected with passion, Leo is much better off staying with his love songs and subtle attacks on the government as opposed to brazen slams.
A track like “Colleen” exhibits all of what’s right and wrong about Living. Inside is a deep-seeded punk edge itching to poke its head out, but sadly, it never truly shows. This still doesn’t take away from the addictive and repetitive guitar licks that have come to be Leo and Crew’s trademark. The chorus is ripe with melody, but the first few lines don’t do much for its overall appeal, “Colleen, never to be crowned queen / Never an evergreen / Floating above the scene / As still as a figurine.” The track closes with hard, pounding guitar riffs, but never pushes itself into the realm of authentic and visceral punk.
Despite “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb,” Leo’s voice is still top-notch. “The Last Brigade” sees Leo hitting highs and lows with ease as he fades into a marathon of singing, “Every little memory, every little memory has a song.” “La Costa Brava” is propelled almost solely on vocals alone and mines similar territory to an early Goo Goo Dolls track, with its generic and utterly boring structure and concepts.
Though there are certain shades of the Clash in some songs, Leo can’t shed the pseudo-hippie image that goes along with his pop-punk reputation. Maybe it’s because he’s a vegan. Maybe it’s because he does awkward AOL interviews. Maybe he’s just not meant to be a punk. Punk may be dead, but Leo shows that pop-punk is alive and well. It is the sub-genre that has defined his career and in the case of Living, proves too confining for his expanding lyrical ambitions.
Three stars out of five
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Living With the Living
Touch and Go