As a rule, writers who cover pop music tend to overvalue artists whose work is in touch with the zeitgeist. A cursory look at the essays of any Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll bear this out. It's simply not enough for critics to say what their favorite records of the year are. They need to explain why those records are important to the grander scheme of here and now. However, topical relevance and sociological implications are usually inessential to enjoying music, even if it makes for good (and, frankly, easier to write) copy. Plus, when heard many years later, it can sound incredibly dated. Have you listened to Lou Reed's New York album lately?
Still, it's impossible to listen to music outside of the context of one's existence. And even the most hermitic of us is surely shaped by the current state of the world. When an artist comments on the present, it can affect as us though they're expressing our own new and inexplicable feelings, perhaps in a way we never thought to before. Does this necessarily make for a better record? It can and often does add a vitality to the music, but only if the music's vital in the first place.
Such was the case with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' Hearts of Oak, which perfectly encapsulated the emotions of post-9/11 America: The anger, the fear, the confusion and the subtle hope for a better, more peaceful world. Leo managed this without resorting to ponderousness or pretension, focusing his (and our) complex feelings of uncertainty and conflict into something relatable yet poetic. The album was a powerful statement and gave notice that Leo was a major artist. He's released a pair a full-lengths since, both of which had wonderful moments though neither quite managed to replicate the grandeur of Hearts of Oak.
That is, until now. With today's release of The Brutalist Bricks, Leo and co. give us what may well be their best effort yet. Like Hearts of Oak before it, The Brutalist Bricks captures its moment beautifully. Since the 2008 election, the reactionary response of the right has led many us to feel real change may not be possible. Hope has faded in cynicism. Leo shares our frustration but refuses to be beaten by it. His conviction makes us believe that there's glory in simply fighting the good fight whether or not we always get the outcome we want. Unfortunately, promos didn't come with a lyric sheet, so I've got nothing to quote but, believe me, the message comes through loud and clear.
This is all well and good but would mean little if the music wasn't as captivating as the lyrics. It is. The Brutalist Bricks is not any kind of departure from Leo's trademark sound. Rather, it distills his greatest strengths and offers some strongest melodies of his career. And it sounds fantastic, sporting crisp production with each element clearly pronounced in the mix. Listing highlights from an album this strong feels a bit arbitrary and redundant. However, I will note that the soaring "Ativan Eyes," the vibrant, pounding "Gimme the Wire" and the insanely catchy "Bottled in Cork" are the songs I'm most looking forward to hearing the next time I see the Pharmacists at one their justly lauded live shows.
The album is streaming in full on MySpace, if you want to give it a listen. And you really should. It's an early contender for album of the year.