Regrettably, there is no better way to describe “Me and Mia”, the opening song on Ted Leo + Pharmacists’ new record, than to cuss it out. In italics. Uncreative, emphasized profanity.
It’s wicked fuckin’ catchy.
The blistering minor-key changes in the chorus, the skanky bridge, and the passion in Leo’s voice are all unshakable. Songs don’t come equipped with hooks meatier than “Me and Mia”. When they sink their curved, metallic spikes into your auditory consciousness, setting off countless neurotransmitters of pleasure, you’ll do anything to retain the sensation of that blissful first listen. You’ll find that the repeat button (or, for those of you listening on tape decks, the rewind button) is the cheapest local anesthetic. If you think you can drink it out of your head, trust me, it’s damn near impossible.
If you have problems making it past “Me and Mia” (and that’s totally understandable, seeing as how the odds are stacked against Leo when what is possibly the finest song of his hallowed career kicks things off), allow me to fill you in on what the rest of the record’s all about. Shake the Sheets is burdened with the unfortunate task of following on the heels of last year’s universally adored Hearts of Oak. If Shake the Sheets lacks the subtle, nuanced excursions of its predecessor, it’s redeemed by an urgent, unrelenting focus. Yes, Leo and his band (Chris Wilson and David Lerner) knocked out this record with the bare essentials of power-trio instrumentation. Yes, the production is slicker than black ice and effortlessly uniform. But Shake the Sheets is also bleary eyed and caffeine-stoked, empathetic and unfiltered, as majestically melodic as Jon Brion and fiercely topical as Joe Strummer. It’s a clean, bright thunderbolt of self-expression, overwhelmingly electric like flood lights, and probably one of the best sets of no-frills, intelligent rock you’ll hear this year.
While comparisons to Thin Lizzy and Dexys Midnight Runners are often evoked, Leo continues to follow more in the politically charged steps of Billy Bragg or Elvis Costello. His songs, instructed by the transcendent punk of the Clash and informed by folk and classic rock, are those of a storyteller who communicates in the panels of a comic strip artist. Leo wears his politics on his sleeve, but never gets caught beating them into heavy-handed awkwardness. Springsteen-isms like “Accidents mean no one’s guilty / Ignorance means someone’s killed” (“Counting Down the Hours”) and “I wanna sweep the halls of arrogance” (“Shake the Sheets”) sit comfortably next to insightful copses like “I could deal with trying to process pigeons acting like doves / But not with interference from the power lines above” (“Counting Down the Hours”) and “Gold is just a trick of the light” (“Better Dead Than Lead”).
Each song works its ass off to live up to the expectations set unreasonably high by the lead-off track. “The Angels’ Share” pounds out a grinding disco/reggae groove like a washing machine on steroids. The instruments claustrophobically ping-pong off one another in “Little Dawn”, Leo working some Mick Jones sweetness into the song’s sour. The rabid guitar wrangling in “Heart Problems” fights to fend off the formidable melody, and it’s a losing battle. Ghostly traces from disparate sources such as Irish folk, English New Wave, and the American South blend tirelessly into Shake the Sheets’ uniquely Leonian DNA.
Leo taps into a web of frustration in Shake the Sheets that accompanies an idealistic or naïve belief that one possesses the faculties required to help or provoke change. Simply understanding a problem doesn’t allow the problem’s answer to materialize. An unwanted grip of powerlessness often accompanies sympathy and calls to action, evident in the weary “The One Who Got Us Out”: “I put it to you plain and bluntly / I’m worried for my tired country”.
Which brings us back to “Me and Mia”, that song that launches the record into a string of shattered poeticisms. That scarred portrait of an eating disorder, its narrator’s willingness to understand and reach out embedded deep within its simple story. “Fighting for the smallest goal / To get a little self-control,” Leo sings, as dedicated to solving the problem as he is helpless. “Do you believe in something beautiful? / Then get up and be it,” he adds, and you realize that the heart of Shake the Sheets beats not only for the world, but for each person in it.