I’ve been holding out hope that mythical, meaningful rock-and-roll isn’t dead but just bottlenecked, blocked, impacted. I’ve been praying to the bolt-wielding God of The Party that somewhere, somebody is busy writing the next holy fucking scripture. Hearts Of Oak, the latest sonic litany proffered by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, comes breathtakingly close to such messianic greatness.
Before I commence pouring praise all over Hearts Of Oak, think back to when Wilco released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the wake of 9/11. You may recall that many Wilco militants suggested a Jungian synchronicity between Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics and the terrorist attack on America. The truth is, a much better case for freaky lyrical prescience can be made for Hearts Of Oak. Take the opening lines of “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone”: “It’s times like these when a neck looks for a knife, a wrist for a razor / A heart is longing for bullets / Tension is high under sea and over sky / Pressure drop / People are acting foooo-ooh-ooh-ooh-lish”.
Preach it, brother.
Later, on “The High Party”, Leo warns, “If there’s a war, another shitty war to fight for Babylon / Then it’s the perfect storm in a teacup / But you must drink it dow-wow-wown”.
Alas, Hearts of Oak is not a full-blown divination. Many of the songs are curiously oblique narratives that too often descend into annoying obscurantism. To his credit, Leo’s schizoid voice, which moves without hesitation between a brash falsetto and petulant word spitting, does manage to nicely counterbalance his occasionally overwrought lyrics, lending them some nastiness. But Leo is at his best when he stays away from the weird and unnecessary references (“Out of your personal scripture / Philomel, she comes” springs immediately to mind) altogether. He is strongest when he viscerally confronts his self-doubt and world-weary frustration. In fact, two of the most convincing songs on the album, the stranger-in-a-strange-land storytelling of “The Ballad of the Sin Eater”, and the song-as-encouragement-to-a-friend “The Crane Takes Flight”, borrow directly from Dylan, the master of singing the liberal white boy blues.
As the team-themed cover art suggests, the band sounds more unified here than on preceding Pharmacists’ albums. Leo’s guitar bends, breaks, and manipulates notes as always, but this time the contributions of Dorien Garry (piano and organ), Dave Lerner (bass), and Chris Wilson (drums) sound less like discrete layers, and more like integral parts of the band’s sound. Such unprecedented cohesiveness gives the record a joyous, communal quality that gains momentum throughout the course of the album.
Insanely hooky and tortuous, Hearts Of Oak is an informal message that couldn’t have come at a more fitting time. Leo furiously delineates the dilemma of being a well-educated, well-intentioned American in a time when intelligent skepticism is regarded as sedition. In so passionately revealing his fears and doubts about the world and himself, he reminds us of rock’s power to make everything alright, or as close to alright as it’s gonna get. When I’m feeling low these days, hearing Ted sing: “It’s not time to ossify / It’s not the end of wondering why / It’s not in your faith or your apostasy / It’s not the end of history” makes me feel better. Ted and the Pharmacists have succeeded at creating the curative stuff their name promises.