Hooks have never been a problem for Ted Leo: His chiming riffs, swooping choruses, and ping-ponging melodies almost always maximize the emission of feel-good brain chemicals. But the former Chisel frontman’s recordings as a solo artist have sometimes sounded incomplete, as if some extra studio time would’ve made them even better. In this sense, the new Hearts of Oak is an exception. Leo has a steady roster of Pharmacists this time out, and the songs consistently crackle and pop as a result. “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” is the obvious place to start: Leo takes a whirlwind tour of ethnic battlegrounds (Belfast, Serbia, Rwanda) while riding a chunky fuzz-bass-line and pounding drums. “You didn’t think they could hate you, now did you?” becomes the track’s catchphrase, delivered with a high-pitched urgency worthy of a street-corner soapbox. Somehow, though, Leo sounds more like a Mekon than a half-baked protester. And though the rest of Hearts of Oak is more elegant in its delivery, it never skimps on brain power. “The High Party” couches Leo’s media awareness in undeniably mod-ish terms (no wonder he’s earning all the Paul Weller comparisons) as he aims a few thinly veiled barbs at complacent liberals. “If there’s a war/Another shitty war for Babylon/Then it’s the perfect storm in a teacup/But you must drink it down,” he sings, pointing the finger at himself, too. Politics aside, Leo proves once and for all that he’s not only a softie but also something of a dreamer: When it comes to pure emotion, he’d rather put up a wall of words than just come out and say it. It’s most obvious on the guitar-and-vocals track “First to Finish, Last to Start,” which sounds tender but puts relationships in a decidedly adult context (“I’m not afraid/We’ll meet another day”). Likewise, the hopeful and clangy “Bridges, Squares” pines for a life with meaning, but does so with words like “ossify” and “apostasy.” Our man lays on the vocab in several other places, too, but because the overall performances are so damn sharp, those moments are hardly obstacles to enjoyment. With Hearts of Oak, Leo has graduated from pushing buttons to pushing them well. —Joe Warminsky

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