Named after the most violent and depraved of Shakespeare’s tragedies, New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus earn the right to the name by scratching away at the polish of Springsteen-esque heartland rock to reveal its roughest undertones. At one point, the band makes the comparison plainly clear by gleefully swapping ‘run’ for ‘die’ when they recondition the classic Springsteen line “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”
The five-piece band, led by vocalist and guitarist Patrick Stickles, put their first album out in 2008. Its recording quality was detrimentally poor, but it revealed a group with a flair for melodic rock. With references to Seinfeld, Hunter S. Thompson, and Albert Camus, the album felt rooted firmly in stereotypical teenage pretensions. The two years that followed, however, saw a meteoric upsurge in the band’s ambition and nuance. They went from an intensely teenage punk group to crafting a mature and awe-inspiring piece of work.
2010’s The Monitor is a deeply American album. On the face of it, the album’s subject is the American Civil War: the title references the USS Monitor and its closing track is named after a battle involving the titular ship. Through this historical reference point, frontman Patrick Stickles explores his own personal struggles towards the end of the 2000s.
Perhaps the most immediately enticing song outside of the album’s context is the opener, A More Perfect Union. It takes its title from the preamble to the US constitution, and also refers to a speech made by Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign. The album starts with an excerpt from an Abraham Lincoln speech about controlling one’s own destiny. Through the remainder of the song, Stickles reappropriates this speech’s civil war context, and applies it to his own experiences of moving to a new city. The lyrics are as dense and culturally referential as the most verbose hip-hop, but Stickles’ guitar work transforms a shrewd metaphor into a grandiloquent anthem of adolescence. Without a doubt, A More Perfect Union is a contender for my favourite song of the 2010s so far.
Lyrically, the entwining of military narratives with adolescent struggles and millennial language makes for a truly unique listening experience. For example, The Battle of Hampton Roads begins by describing a decisive naval battle before saying that if you pursue your dreams, jocks will tell you “that shit’s gay, dude.” Perhaps the album’s defining moment, however, comes on No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future when Stickles repeatedly sings, “you will always be a loser.” Over the course of a couple of minutes, the phrase moves from being the unimaginative put-down of a schoolyard bully to a jubilantly defiant rallying cry.
With recurring motifs, an overarching concept and organic construction, The Monitor does not feel like ten separate songs. Even though its longest track is almost fifteen minutes and its shortest is less than two, every track builds upon another to construct a distinct troupe of tracks with a collective identity. Stickles positions straightforward punk tracks alongside multi-faceted epics. Both Titus Andronicus Forever and …And Ever mostly consist of the phrase “the enemy is everywhere” repeated over and over, but their relentless rhythms retain the interest. These are juxtaposed with intricate compositions such as A Pot In Which To Piss and The Battle Of Hampton Roads. The former incorporates isolated vocals, piano and strings while the latter incorporates bagpipes.
Truthfully, it took me a long time for The Monitor to win me over. It is just over an hour in length, but its lengthy songs and dense theme can make it feel like a daunting prospect. In actuality, the album is an absolutely joy to listen to from start to finish, and that’s an odd thing to say about an American Civil War concept album.
Scheduled for release this year, the band’s fourth album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, is a 93-minute rock opera. The thought of most bands attempting such a mammoth task is cringe-inducing, but so is an American Civil War concept album. Titus Andronicus is not most bands.