I bought Ted Leo’s Shake the Sheets a few months after its release–which would have been early 2005. I picked it up at Val’s Halla Records in Oak Park. This was the original location that smelled like Marlboros, dog piss, and dust, right off the Green Line. I spent hours there after school, usually Friday nights, talking to the two guys on staff, James and Shane. Shane was a big goth guy with a penchant for Steely Dane. His hair always looked like a bomb went off in his face and he chain-smoked all the time. James was the token gangly punk dude who was in a band called Blasted Diplomats. And it was James who got me into all kinds of bands. He was my second access point to the punk canon.
Anyway, when Shake the Sheets came out I had no idea who Ted Leo was. I was moping around the shop with what little money I had from my weekend job at Gem Comics. James recommended I pick up the album. James was a human library of music info and a lot of it centered around rock’s underground history. But at this time, poptimism, the reframing of pop music history from the perspective that pop music was serious and should be appreciated as such, was gaining steam. Rockism, the old guard’s view that rock was the lens through which pop music history should be viewed, was dying out. Goodbye Lester Bangs, hello Pitchfork.
It didn’t dawn on me that this was happening. Rockism was how I implicitly viewed the word without knowing it thanks to music journalists/historians like Mike Azzerad. I bring this up because I got a hold of a large portion of my CD collection from high school and I’ve been listening to this record a lot lately. These were the last few years when indie cred might have actually existed. But it was in its twilight. It was also Bush’s second term, and that’s all over this record.
I put Shake the Sheets on recently to see what it was like to listen to something that was, for me, totemic of the Bush era now that Trump’s president. We were at war. The administration had a startling carte blanche to do whatever it wanted and that was confounding for almost everyone around me. Weren’t protests supposed to end a war? What kind of contract had we with the state anymore? Why didn’t it matter that everyone knew Operation Iraqi Freedom was a crock of shit propped up on grandstanding and lies? And who elected this dumbass–twice?
At the same time, there was a twinkle of optimism in independent music likely brought about, in part, by poptimism’s ascendence. Sufjan’s band had cute matching costumes and he was going to do a record for every state. Dance music was coming back with bands like LCD Soundsystem and, later, Death from Above 1979. Hell, even Modest Mouse had managed to crank out a feel good radio single after years churning out songs that can only be described as “tile floor music.” People were managing to have a good time a few years after 9/11 leveled the national psyche. This was a sea change from the first four years of Bush’s tenure when Bright Eyes broke out and most kids I knew were into death metal or From Autumn to Ashes and late night phone calls from friends committing self-harm were regular enough that I slept with my phone next to my bed. I don’t know if anyone was happy–who’s ever happy? But there was a sense, amidst all the exhaustion, that things were looking up.
That’s palpable on Shakes the Sheets. Every song has a brightness to it. Even its title has an aspirational quality–shake the sheets, shake off the dust, catch a breath of fresh air in the first few good days spring has on hand. It’s safe to say no one’s having a good time anymore and nothing’s looking up. After the letdown that was Obama’s reign and the rampant fraud that almost annihilated the global economy in a day back in 2008 and the death of Occupy and the birth of #BlackLivesMatter (for the record, I don’t believe the black American experience has ever been easy or just) and the 2016 election people aren’t exhausted like they were in 2005. They’re fucking terrified. That’s a whole different animal.
What was I expecting when I queued up the CD? It’s hard to parse. I think I wanted some kind of renewal. Now when I listen to these albums I’m often shot back into how I was feeling at the time. And at around this time, it was starting to dawn on me that I was likely to leave the Midwest if I played my cards right. And I’d become more confident–to the extent that any high schooler can. So I was hoping, all these years later, to feel that again that again in the same way that I have recapitulated to the sadnesses that used to own me while I lived for this music as a kid.
Hope has no such stamina.
I don’t think this is Ted Leo’s best record. The Tyranny of Distance is better. But it’s still a good record. I still enjoy a lot of these songs. After all, “Me and Mia, Ann and Anna” is still an incredible tune that pulls off that magic trick: a hooky melody in a major key lashed around dire straits. It never gets old. I’ve listened to it the whole way through maybe ten times over the last few weeks. Probably more if you add up all the bits and pieces I’ve snatched while getting ready in the morning, folding laundry, or cleaning up my room. It feels alienating to listen to now. I look back at the hope I had as young man, a teenager, and I’m gobsmacked.
What was my idea of the future?
What did I think the world had in store for me then?
What did I think the world had in store for itself?
I thought things might work out on balance.
It’s not that it’s dumb in retrospect, though plenty of adolescence is dumb in retrospect, thank God. It’s that it’s is a missive from a foreign time misaligned with everything that happened after it.
I had a question that I kept repeating to myself at this age. I don’t know where it came from and it didn’t leave me alone until well after college. Who cares who’s alone at night? I’d ask when I settled down inside, or when a room got quiet enough that I could hear the sharpness of the silence. I’m not asking that question anymore. But I’m not asking a completely different one either.