Decades into his career, the musician continues to explore the personal and political with admirable fervor

According to horoscope.com, a Leo is “bold, intelligent, warm and courageous ... a natural leader of the Zodiac, ready to blaze a trail, vanquish injustice and make a name for themselves along the way.”

Though the star sign has nothing to do with Ted Leo's actual date of birth (he's a Virgo), it's still a fitting description for the musician, who, for decades, has specialized in ridiculously catchy punk anthems that ably straddle the personal and the political. On Leo's most recent album, The Hanged Man, from 2017, he comments on the dark political reality of these times (“The creeping and the menace grows,” he offers on opener “Moon Out of Phase”), as well as the 2011 death of his daughter, who was born prematurely, a devastating loss Leo addresses directly on the shattered “Let's Stay on the Moon." 

Leo, who performs at Rumba Cafe tonight (Wednesday, Aug. 21) with his band the Pharmacists, has long chronicled the political mood in the States, singing as far back as 2004 that he was “worried for his tired country.” But while the passage of time has done little to dampen this concern (The Hanged Man has moments that are a clear byproduct of living in the Trump era), the demons Leo is wrestling this time around tend to feel a bit more internal, as if he's undergoing a deep self-excavation.

This introspective turn has led to a subtle musical shift. In the past, Leo tended to sing with Paul Revere urgency, syllables tumbling forth in a relentless rush. It's a characteristic that Aimee Mann, who collaborated with Leo in The Both, described as a “straining at the leash quality” where “everything he played and sang was 20 milliseconds ahead of the beat.”

Although this trait still surfaces on The Hanged Man, it's dialed back, with Leo often taking just a fraction more time to let the words sink in. “I used to believe we'd be comfortably settled by now,” he offers at one point. While he's not quite there, it's to the musician's credit that he's navigated such intense private turmoil to get this close.