Thursday, November 18, 2010

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (2010)



Patrick Stickles -- literature major, Harvard student, dyed-in-the-wool rock & roller -- is a whirlwind. Within his capacity as the frontman of New Jersey's epic punk rockers Titus Andronicus, he is a channel for unapologetic emotion: triumph, mourning, disappointment, rebellion. We're so many years away from the Clash and the Rolling Stones, but somehow these basic principles have never been abandoned by the young people who are meant to be reached by pop music; an anthem of displacement or lust or thrilling, depressing drunkenness fires them all up the same way. It takes a special kind of human being, though, to take the plunge so eloquently, so directly, and so unpretentiously.

The Monitor, named for Civil War lore -- the USS Monitor was the Union's vessel involved in the first battle between two ironclad warships -- is everything a rock band can hope for as a sophomore effort: expanding beyond freshfaced promise, it offers intelligent lyricism, conceptual ambition that isn't betrayed by dinky ideas, deeply felt performances, visceral kick, asides and secrets aplenty, and the ability to generate fist-pumping awe. Oh, it's also very possibly the best rock album of 2010. It comes on like some lost marching band pounding its way into the fog. Those unfamiliar can contemplate a Southern rock version of Neutral Milk Hotel, or a more ethereal and bookish Replacements, or a wilder R.E.M., or a historically obsessed Old 97's, but that only begins to scrape at the endlessly affecting, powerful music herein. Some will feel the way they did upon discovering Funeral and remembering that maybe naïve teenage feelings belonged in rock & roll after all.

Only there's very little naïve or teenage about this: Splicing in speech (Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Jefferson Davis, etc.) and metaphor of the Civil War, it's an inordinately adult record, a document of internal struggle with self, love, self-love, self-hatred, family, anger, drugs, rejection, whatever. (Maybe even murder, on "Richard II," which fits both the bitter spit of hatred and a Scooby Doo reference.) They occasionally shred and thrash with abandon, but on much of the record TA plays with surprising conservatism, almost suggesting a mildly off-kilter revision of The Band. But Stickles pushes them over the edge into beyond-the-pale territory with his vocal fray, half-crazed and half-astonisngly beautiful lyrics, and the entirely believable threat that he could simply fall apart at any moment.

Stickles tosses in lyrical references to Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, and the Velvet Underground, but his suspicion of all things, his determination to push himself in the wrong direction, is somewhere closer to the Hank Williams school. On the opening track, he snarls "I want to realize too late that I should never have left New Jersey." There are certainly times that Stickles' words are suffocatingly personal, and it seems physically painful for him to sing them ("So all I want for Christmas is no feelings, no feelings now and never again... I have surrendered what made me human and all that I thought was true / So now there's a robot that lives in my brain and he tells me what to do" simultaneously belies and fits perfectly with the emo march behind it), but there is also effortless, frank beauty to be found. The stunningly moving (and hilariously labeled) drinking song "Theme from 'Cheers'" will remind many of Rhett Miller at his peak, clashing hedonism with resigned, knowing self-awareness ("Let's get fucked up and let's pretend we're all okay") as it pictures a wasted weekend of drinking passing into an infinite number of them and finally closing on the eventual discussion of grandchildren at a bar, and the ride out of the world on a stretcher. The clear-eyed vision is tempered by wails of protest: "Those dreams are lying in the still of the grave, what the fuck were they for anyway?"

Titus don't really document contented moments, nor are they concerned with overblown dramatics. All of the flourishes feel justified, partially because something like "God knows how many times I've said this before, but I really don't feel like doing this anymore" actually reads and sounds like a man who's had it, for real. No clue how much the ring of truth translates to reality, but the record wouldn't be the same without it: "Down in North Carolina, I could have been a productive member of society / But these New Jersey cigarettes and all they require have made a fucking junkie out of me." The delivery of a line like "If you talk and nobody's listening, then it's almost like being alone" renders its slight angular, arhythmic nature shattering.

The aim of much of the rage and uncertainty is deliberately vague, but at least some of it -- "The enemy is everywhere, but no one seems to be worried or care" on the dual rallying cries "Titus Andronicus Forever" and "...And Ever" -- seems inevitably political. "Four Score and Seven" raises the stakes: "After 10,000 years, it's still us against them / And my heroes have always died at the end... It's still us against them / And they're winning." But the most impassioned, fiery cries are saved for the chaotic, cathartic but intensely focused finale, "The Ballad of Hampton Roads."

Epic punk is undoubtedly not a new idea, but this certainly seems to carry the stripped-bare attack of a punk anthem to the limit of its literary possibilities. Sure, "Sister Ray" (17:27) is three minutes longer than this (14:02), but the steady building and release of its tension, and certainly the not-at-all-coolheaded vocal, offers a more multifaceted screaming into the void. The song amounts to a haunted cry, a protest against everything, a rejection of dread and an embracing of uncertainty, and most of all, an unadorned primal-scream emptying of frustration. "Is there a girl at this college who hasn't been raped? / Is there a boy in this town that's not exploding with hate? / Is there a human alive ain't look themselves in the face without winking / Or said what they mean without drinking / Who will believe in something without thinking 'what if somebody doesn't approve' / Is there a soul on this earth that isn't too frightened to move?" After turning the gun on himself ("Half the time I open my mouth to speak it's to repeat something that I've heard on TV"), Stickles makes suicidal promises ("When I drink I'm going to drink to excess / And when i smoke I will smoke gaping holes in my chest"), and no, dad, he's not making this up, before pleading pathetically, comically, humanly "I'd be nothing without you, darling, please don't ever leave." It also has bagpipes.

It would be a mistake to overlook the album's more textured songs. The calm, (even) sadder, gospel-tinged "To Old Friends and New" is an anthemic dysfunctional-family lament. Piano aggression, cathartic strings, and a slapped-together Beggars Banquet or Sister Lovers sound mark "Four Score and Seven," beautifully wounded. The gleefully insane "A Pot in Which to Piss" builds to defiant wiry punk but opens up on a brooding dirge that suggests intimacy, hope, and crippling fear. My favorite line is "You ain't never been no virgin, kid, you were fucked from the start" but there's another, quite telling bit in what sounds like a psychodrama about a band's attempts to make it: "You can't make it on merit, not on merit and merit alone / Dan McGee tried to tell me, 'There ain't no more Rolling Stones' / They're all going to be laughing at you." That an album like this could be issued to no more fanfare than it's received suggests the only reason there's no more Rolling Stones is we're too lazy to find them. The Monitor is real shit. It's dangerous, it's addictive, it's harrowing, it includes a recital of a Walt Whitman poem, it's playful, it's rock & roll -- if you've any kind of a taste for the weird and true, waste no more time getting to know it.

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