The Hanged Man is one of the most misunderstood tarot cards. Depicting a man hanging by his foot off a tree or cross, it doesn’t seem to portend anything good. But the card is auspicious, a sign of wisdom and strength gained from a period of self-sacrifice and struggle. If you’re going through a tough time, the card’s a sign that you won’t be dangling from that tree forever.
Ted Leo’s latest album is called The Hanged Man. It’s an apt title. The years between his last album, 2010’s The Brutalist Bricks, and his triumphant return this year were full of trials for Leo. He’s dealt with his former record label, Matador, dropping him. He’s had to face a changing musical landscape where it’s hard for even a musician of his stature to make a living. Leo’s family has struggled with health issues. The singer was briefly separated from his wife, and the couple had to cope with a tragic miscarriage.
Considering the hand life dealt him, you might imagine that Leo’s new album would be a dark, somber affair. This isn’t the case. The Hanged Man is one of his most adventurous, sonically diverse records. The lyrics are some of the most emotionally devastating, revealing words he’s ever written. Leo details the sexual abuse he faced as a child in “You’re Like Me.” And “Let’s Stay on the Moon” hits the listener like an iron gauntlet to the face as Leo sings, “We had a daughter and she died.”
It isn’t just the words, but the understated way he sings them.
There’s a weariness and despair that permeates the record, contrasting with the wide range of sounds Leo employs. On songs like “Used to Believe,” he incorporates rapturous strings that hit the same sweet spot ELO’s Jeff Lynne has been hammering away at like a Whack-A-Mole for years. Those new sounds owe a lot to how that record came into being. It’s a solo effort from front to back.
Leo recorded the entire album on his own, playing all the parts. “It did prove to be really liberating,” the singer says by phone. “When you’re buying studio time and working with other people, there’s sort of a limit on what you can even try. You have to have everything pretty well mapped out. This process allowed me to experiment a lot more.”
Working solo wasn’t the only major change Leo underwent as a recording artist. Without the support of a label, he financed the recording by crowdfunding via Kickstarter. He even played private shows for some of the more generous donors.
“Those shows were all great,” Leo said. “Those people weren’t rich assholes who just wanted to throw money at something — they were real music fans who really wanted to help me out.”
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Leo has assembled a six-piece band to help bring the varied sounds of The Hanged Man to life on tour. The challenge for them is “figuring out how we six individuals can come up with a working live iteration of this sound that isn’t slavish to the record but achieves the same spirit.”
And for the prolific songwriter, perhaps the greatest challenge of this tour is sharing the most personal songs he’s ever written night after night.
“I was not prepared for how cathartic it was all going to be,” Leo says. “It’s been emotionally draining, but it feels right. It feels like the right time to be doing this.”
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, October 31, at Valley Bar. Tickets are $20 via valleybarphx.com.