Monday, March 08, 2010

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor

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Listening to The Monitor is like being shoved face-first into a musical blender, with large chunks of punk colliding with smaller fragments of horns, barroom piano, bombastic arena-ready group sing-alongs, strings, harmonicas and bagpipes. Whatever ambitious starting points its songs might have - Titus Andronicus frontman/howler Patrick Stickles describes the band's newest album as "sort of" a concept album about the Civil War - listeners shouldn't expect a song cycle about soldiers dying for nebulous causes or even South Carolinian thug Preston Brooks beating the abolitionist tar out of Charles Sumner. And that's for the best: The Monitor feels like a perfectly contemporary album that will remain relevant years from now. It is also, to borrow a term used on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, pretty fucking amazing.

To be fair, there are scattered Civil War references throughout the 65-minute album. Several songs begin or end with musicians reciting quotes from famous dead politicians and writers immortalized in very large and professorially serious volumes about the war; the cover art, album title and 14-minute closing track "The Battle of Hampton Roads" invoke the famous ironclad; lyrics speak of "blue trampling over gray," the "terrible swift sword," white flags, gurneys, stretchers, ships heading back into port and other implements of war. Hell, opening track "A More Perfect Union" manages to incorporate parts of at least three different 19th century wartime tunes. But there are also mentions of various things Jersey - the Newark Bears, Fung Wah Bus, Garden State Parkway and a nihilistic Springsteen revision of "tramps like us/ Baby we were born to die" - as well as clever lyrical borrowings of Elvis Costello, the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan ("I'm going back to New Jersey/ I do believe they've had enough of me"). Simply put, The Monitor might be inspired by America's bloodiest war, but its concerns are of the present time.

Throughout their debut The Airing of Grievances, Stickles raged like a sane man locked up in the basement of Ancora State Hospital. On The Monitor, his vocals are placed much higher in the mix, giving these songs the type of vocal clarity that was sometimes missing from Airing's murkier mix, without sacrificing any sense of urgency. There's still a ton of yelling and spitting - particularly in the revenge fantasy of "Richard II" and the vitriolic screed that punctuates "The Battle of Hampton Roads" - but there is also a range to Stickles' voice that the songs on Grievances only hinted at. He'll never be mistaken for a smooth crooner, but Stickles actually has an expressive, evocative voice, particularly on the slow-burn openings of "Four Score and Seven" and "To Old Friends and New." The songs' arrangements are likewise sprawling, whether it's in the two-minute claustrophobic outburst of "Titus Andronicus Forever," the sodden, sloppy honky-tonk of the appropriately boozy "Theme From 'Cheers,'" the rolling keyboards of "A Pot in Which to Piss," or the nearly-symphonic horns of "Four Score and Seven." Few albums have managed to incorporate so many different musical ideas this well; despite their lofty intentions, none of these songs ever sound bloated.

The Monitor plays like a pocket guide to existentialism without ever falling into the type of self-pity that makes emo so unbearable or the proselytizing that makes your garden variety punk band so exhausting. Coupled with the songs' furious arrangements, these sentiments are often cathartic as hell. There's death, frustration, rage - plenty of rage - thoughts of revenge ("There's only one dream that I keep close/ And it's the one of my hand at your throat") and a palpable anger that someone's been royally screwed over and isn't exactly happy with it. It's the same familiar territory as Grievances, but with a more finely-honed edge. A clear line is drawn in the sand; "it's still us against them/ And they're winning" Stickles screams at one point, repeating the line for anyone too attention-deficient to catch it the first or second time.

As on Grievances, there are also frequent bouts of self-loathing, small-town boredom, and sexual frustration - "a hand and a napkin/ When I'm looking for sex" Stickles laments at one point - which are only temporarily dulled, usually by booze or cigarettes or watching sitcoms in the basement with equally miserable friends. The album's fatalism can sometimes come on a bit thick, with a few clunky lyrics to match, but most of the time it works. Life as depicted on The Monitor may be absurd and pointless, but no one from Titus Andronicus is waving the white flag or ready to let the bastards win just yet. They'd much rather cling to their righteous pissed-off defiance and beat their instruments into submission, even if all they can ultimately do at the endgame is "urinate into the void."

4 comments:

Brendan said...

Great review. I'm impressed.

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