Ted Leo writes anthems. Or at least he tries to. His songs all have an urgent, earnest quality that, when it works (which is more often than not), is both energizing and inspiring.
Sometimes it can be taxing to sit through an entire album's worth of would-be anthems, but on the four albums preceding Living with the Living (the most recent being 2004's Shake the Sheets), Leo excelled at synthesizing diverse elements of punk rock, folk and ska with extremely verbose lyrics into a unique sound that somehow worked.
No other singer sings quite like Leo, either. On Living with the Living's opening song "The Sons of Cain," his singing is very rhythmic, as if to match the quality of the drumming and the handclaps that accompany it. Everything is taut and full of Leo's typical manic energy.
Fans of Leo will recognize plenty of familiar territory, but Leo also tests some new influences on the album. The guitars in "Army Bound" borrow liberally in parts from the riff in The Kinks' "Victoria," though the lyrical content is significantly darker than the Kinks' lighthearted send-up of Victorian England.
Perhaps the most surprising song on the album is "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb." which sounds like a B-side from the The Dismemberment Plan's album The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified. The song finds Leo reeling off lyrics over an underlying chorus of voices yelling "Bomb! Repeat! Bomb!" and fuzzy, intermittent bursts of guitar.
If the previously mentioned song titles haven't clued you in, Leo's lyrics on Living with the Living are more overtly political, but it never feels as if Leo is trying to shove his message down your throat. There has always been a playful quality to his verbosity. One of Leo's strengths as a lyricist and singer has always been his ability to take complicated lines such as "Lazy biters ignore what they lack/ Lazy fighters will overreact/ And if the tricks and the pricks and the hacks distract/ Don't look back" (on "The World Stops Turning") and deliver them around much less complex punk rock chord progressions. Anyone who can convincingly use the word "timorous" in a song title, and make it rock, deserves some props.
But on Living with the Living, his love of words sometimes gets taken to the extreme on songs such as "Colleen" in which Leo gets out his rhyming dictionary to rhyme "Colleen" with a vast array of words like "queen," "evergreen," "figurine," "15" and the somewhat more dubious "dream" and "scream." He never once repeats a rhyme and the overall effect is downright silly.
Musically, Living with the Living is mostly consistent with Leo's other albums. There are plenty of tightly wound guitars, driving drumbeats and a few surprising flourishes — an Irish flute on "A Bottle of Buckie" and the ska-inflected guitars on "The Unwanted Things." Despite songs like "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb." Leo doesn't stray far from his comfort zone.
There is nothing on Living with the Living that has the bite of "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" or the rousing quality of "Me and Mia," but Leo tries some musically interesting things and seems to expand his signature style slightly. He just might have another set of anthems in him yet.