Ted Leo doesn't have a voice naturally suited to the brand of politicized pop-punk he's been playing for more than a decade now. It's thin and untextured, too studied in its enunciation and too weak in its falsetto to sound threatening or powerful. And yet, like many angry singers before him, Leo has turned what might be perceived as a shortcoming into an asset, writing lyrics that emphasize the cerebral over the physical and expanding his musical vocabulary to include tatters of reggae, new wave, and folk — whatever gets his point made. As a result, he comes across as an intelligent everyman who has reluctantly accepted a calling and steeled himself to succeed despite his limitations. As he remarks on "The Sons of Cain," the galvanizing opener on his new album, Living with the Living, "I've got to sing just to exist... and to resist."
"The Sons of Cain" showcases everything Leo does well: It rings out loud and fast, an adrenaline rush of pop-punk guitars whose double-time tempo and impassioned, imperfect delivery alone make it catchy. However, his political frustrations over the Iraq war and the brutal, militarized culture it has created seem to be getting the better of him on Living with the Living, with very few tracks living up to the promise of "The Sons of Cain." "Army Bound" stalls continuously, even when it nabs the Kinks' "Victoria" melody for its bridge, and "Colleen" never gets moving, thanks largely to its overly simplistic structure that tries to rhyme every single line with its title. Curiously, many of the album's passages, like the half-rapped delivery on "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb" or the lengthy coda of "The Lost Brigade," sound telegraphed and flat — like ideas that never panned out.
The album's most damning flaw isn't the uninspired and uninspiring music but Leo's tone. Where he once sounded outraged but relentlessly hopeful, now he sounds outraged and bitter, his usually incisive lyrics turned blunt and accusatory. He sounds like he's no longer trying to change the world and instead is just complaining. War is hell indeed. — Stephen Deusner