There ought to be a law against making albums that are more than an hour long — unless, of course, the listener can actually discern some musical variety between the songs on the record. It’s mighty hard to argue against, say, the White Album or “Tommy” on the grounds that they’re too sprawling. A certain grandiose diversity of tone and texture is partly what makes such albums work.
Unfortunately, it’s albums like “Living with the Living,” the latest offering from Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, that tend to make one leery of rock ‘n roll albums that venture past the 12-song mark. Clocking in at just over 67 minutes, “Living with the Living” isn’t exactly an epic, but it’s still long enough to wear out its welcome by more than a thin margin — mostly because, by about halfway through, it begins to sound almost as monotonous as the military-industrial complex its lyrics so often vilify.
What makes this fact uncommonly frustrating is that Leo and his band are quite obviously capable of making great music. The album features some very impressive tracks, and from the beginning the band crackles with energy and urgency. Leo himself is a lyricist of considerable skill, and on “Army Bound” his no-frills vocal delivery meshes perfectly with the Pharmacists’ neurotic post-punk instrumentation. Verses like “For every cradle there’s a grave now / For every owner there’s a slave now” are loaded with substance but come out sounding unpretentious and uncontrived.
Indeed, the first few songs are imbued with enough verve to make the listener want to get up and start thrashing around. But “Living with the Living” never really knows when to shift gears; it’s composed of pure adrenaline and little else. Certain tracks do offer a brief deviation from the seemingly endless onslaught of up-tempo drum rolls and frenetic power chords —“A Bottle of Buckie” betrays some mild country roots, and “The Unwanted Things” is an inexplicable foray into reggae — but such interludes are neither congruous enough nor long enough to do much good. By the time the caustic political rant “Bomb Repeat Bomb” comes around, the listener is all but out of breath.
Whatever may be said of Leo’s songwriting, the problem is certainly not that he has nothing to say: Literary types may find something to celebrate in the richness and density of the album’s lyrical content. But it’s also possible that Leo has too much to say — at least, more than his musical imagination allows him to handle. One may suspect, by the album’s conclusion, that at least a handful of the 16 tracks were cobbled together from recycled melodic fragments just so that Leo’s weighty words might enjoy some — or any — sonic packaging.
Maybe Leo himself shares in this suspicion. His band is named the Pharmacists, after all, but it’s too bad that such a potent medicine needs at least another spoonful of sugar to go down the right way.