The punk rocker makes his most varied album, but he nearly spreads it too thin.
The Ted Leo method could hardly fail. He and the Pharmacists combine energetic guitar lines, punk attitude, and political passion with a voice that's prettier than you'd expect and stronger than "prettier" implies. On his newest release, Living With the Living, he expands his styles a little bit without straying much from his bases. In doing so, Leo creates an album that's a little uneven but manages to work more often than not. Like sportswriters' mythological David Eckstein, this album doesn't necessarily have all the tools, but it gets by on grit.
The most direct appeal of Leo's songwriting comes out in a lyric from first (true) song "The Songs of Cain": "I've got to sing just to resist." The act of performance, whether or not explicitly political, can be its own form of resistance. Living With the Living, whether directly addressing the current (or a past) military situation or speaking to a private character, brings forth its power through the implicit idea that music matters. Maybe it doesn't actually matter (has any ______ Aid changed anything?), but as long as it feels like it does, it does.
Unfortunately, the disc is frontloaded with this feeling, and with its best songs -- "The Sons of Cain", "Army Bound", and "Who Do You Love". Each of these three tracks have the classic Leo/Pharmacists aesthetic, with their bright punk influences, intense lyrics, and excited delivery. "Colleen" follows those tracks and, while it's getting attention for its apolitical lyrics, stays forgettable on its own.
"Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" contains some of the most direct and intensely political lyrics on this disc and while the music album almost reaches an appropriately aggressive pitch, it seems stuck closer to the Offspring (particularly in its chorus) than the underground sounds that it could tend to more. The resulting track straddles the line between pop-punk and a more aggro sound, but even in this state it more or less works. Oddly, though, the track follows "A Bottle of Buckie", an obvious and somewhat entertaining nod to Celtic influences. Both tracks are more or less positives on their own, but when set next to each other, it's a little jarring, and it gives the album a discontinuity that doesn't do it well.
The stylistic mix-ups lend the album a versatility, but at the expense of consistency. Rather than being surprising, Living With the Living just sounds patched-together, which can make a listen feel longer than its actual running time. Part of the problem stems from those opening three numbers, which set a tone and level of quality that isn't sustained or met throughout.
"The Unwanted Things" shows up two-thirds of the way through the disc as a straightforward reggae number (in itself not that unlikely a moment on a punkish album), and reveals both the difficulty of the album's sequencing as well as Leo's ability to maintain his sound even as he varies styles. Between a more rocking number and an almost-dance track, the song could be the disc's biggest anomaly; instead, it merely modifies the delivery of the tenor of its predecessor "Annunciation Day / Born on Christmas Day" while opening the way for the groove of follower "The Lost Brigade". The transitions are at once the album's biggest challenge and sequencing and its greatest success.
It's a shame that, given the quality of each of the songs, the whole disc doesn't work as well in transistion as those moments. On "The Lost Brigade", Leo sings, "Every little memory has a song". The problem here is that there are too many types of memories to match up on Living With the Living (climaxing with the unique and well-done ballad "The Toro and the Toreador") to figure out how to soundtrack it to any of your life, unless its your "feeling generally leftist and rock-needing" disc. In less-skilled hands, the album could have fallen a part, but Leo and the Pharmacists have managed to keep just enough consistency in emotion and sensibility to make sure the disc doesn't do too much to scatter otherwise good songs.