Monday, May 14, 2012

"Bridges, Squares" - Ted Leo & the Pharmacists I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came...                                                                                                                       - William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey 
There's something about Sunday nights that always make me reflective (as does the changing of the seasons), so you'll forgive me if I wax a little poetic. You see, this evening I went for a walk and, as so often happens when I go for a vernal constitutional, I put on "Bridges, Squares" and let my mind wander. When it wanders, my thoughts inevitably turn to my own aging, William Wordsworth, the progress of human history and Francis Fukuyama. To say the least, this is an incredibly evocative song with more going on than initially meets the eye.

I'll come back to Fukuyama in a bit because it's the Wordsworth parallels that always strike me the hardest. Ted Leo was an English major in college and on "Bridges, Squares" he lets his literary training shine with a song structure that borrows heavily from the William Wordsworth's poem known best as Tintern Abbey. The poem is homage to the country as the writer returns to the ruins of an old church to reflect on his life and how things have changed since he had last visited while the rural setting has remained serenely familiar. Of course Leo was never much of a country boy so he wrote his about the city instead. His writing and wandering still manages to to evoke similar wonder and reflectiveness as Wordsworth in a different setting.

Like "Citizen Of Venus" or "Walking To Do"  "Bridges, Squares" is a love-letter to the East Coast, along which Ted has lived up and down over the years. He starts his song in Boston and sings about taking a walk one spring night and being taken in by the interconnections of a global city until he finally ends it in equally bustling New Jersey. In between he sees highways, planes, boats, trains and every manner of transport shuttling people to and fro which leads him to think about the progress of time and technology. He talks about "wondering at the works of man" and contemplating his own place in the vast, ever-moving machinery that is the modern world while simultaneously being lost in "nostalgia for gaslight times." To me, these are all emotions that are hard to avoid (contradictory as they may be) while strolling through a modern city with it's shiny steetlamps and rumbling trains amidst Victorian mansions and historical markers. Hearing these words echo in my ears as the sun slowly faded in that gloriously drawn-out late spring eclipse provided needed focus and fodder for my thoughts.

True spring is especially satisfying in Chicago because it heralds a complete and utter transformation of the city. Gone is the spare, huddled feeling of winter replaced in many areas with an almost reckless verdance. As you walk through Palmer Square, up the boulevard on Kedzie and off into West Logan (as I did tonight), Chicago certainly lives up to its promise of urbs in horto with trees, ivy and all manner of flowers suffusing the air with the damp fragrance of photosynthesized life. Tonight, the residents were also displaying similarly enchanting vitality. As I strolled home I passed impossibly fresh-faced young hipster couples, furtive teens trying to escape supervision, young giggling Hispanic mothers, a burly thirtysomething punk mowing his lawn in a skull t-shirt and black jeans at 8:20 on a Sunday night. It was a scene so collectively captivating that one couldn't help but revel in the joy of being alive in this time and place.

Of course, the temptation when you're lost in such a reverie is to allow yourself to get wrapped up in your own self-satisfied mental world divorced from the actual problems and needs of time and place that you're walking through. "It's not the time to ossify" Leo reminds us in the chorus, "not the end of history". This isn't the only time that Leo explicitly rejects Fukuyama's prediction of the end of history due to the triumph of liberal democracy and there's a reason why the idea is so important. Although Fukuyama isn't talking about a literal cessation of all notable events, he concludes that, at this point, all human events are moving towards an inevitable end. That whole idea is the antithesis of Leo's body of work. In his world we control our own destiny and the possibility of both great good and great evil is ever-present. There's nothing saving or damning us but ourselves which makes it imperative that everyone get out there and live their lives in such a way as to make their vision of history a reality.

It's a long way to go in a punk song, but understanding the larger message of "Bridges, Squares" is, as with all great pieces of music, not necessary to enjoy the song itself. Nestled in the back half of 2003's Hearts Of Oak, it's a slice of keyboard-heavy pop that tips its hat to many of those in Leo's canon of less-heralded 80's British bands. The driving pace does facilitate walking, with Dorien Garry's keyboards providing just the right amount of sweetness to play off the jangly guitar work. I've also included a live version from late 2005 being played by the formidable three-piece incarnation of Pharmacists that featured Leo, Chris Wilson and the much-beloved Dave Lerner on bass. The live version proves not only the impressiveness of that incarnation of the band, but also that the song, despite it's hi-falutin' concepts, stands firmly on it's own two feet as a blast of taut punk just as well as shimmery pop.

Pop music, especially coming from the punk corner isn't, generally speaking, poetic. Thought-provoking, intellectual, wistful, none of these are adjectives that you generally hear used to describe it, and for good reason. Not many people could (or would want to try to) make a catchy, punk song as dense or ambitious or pensive as this one. It may not be exactly a blueprint for hit after hit but it does make for a fantastic late spring listening filed right between "Waterloo Sunset" and "Killermont Street".

Bridges, Squares [Album Version]
Bridges, Square [Live On KEXP]
Buy Hearts Of Oak. Seriously! Now! You WILL thank me.

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