Somewhere in the middle of The Most Lamentable Tragedy – a 93-minute, 29-song monolith – it becomes clear that New Jersey punk-rock outfit Titus Andronicus isn’t really into the whole brevity thing. But as frontman Patrick Stickles rightfully told Grantland in an interview, the record can be enjoyed on a macro level, as well as in the micro scale.
This punk opera in five acts is the fourth studio release from Titus and by far its most ambitious album. Tragedy’s narrative dives into ugly, vulnerable depths. It takes a close look at its protagonist’s self-loathing, hubris and open wounds, which ultimately become his undoing. It gracefully journeys through arena-metal tracks, piano-heavy rockabilly ballads and unhinged thrash jams, as manic as the story’s hero.
Tragedy is spotted with covers of Daniel Johnston’s “I Had Lost My Mind,” The Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” and an awkward rendition of the standard “Auld Lang Syne.” Stickles, who wrote all the original tracks, also throws in references to Hamlet, Don McLean, Charles Bukowski and Friedrich Nietzsche.
It’s impregnated with plenty of stand-alone tracks that are fantastic and undeniable, like “Lonely Boy,” in which the protagonist declares he’s going to stay inside and stare at the ceiling. Stickles cries: “Let me tell you how it goes here in the big city / There ain’t no mercy and there ain’t no pity / And everywhere you turn there are hundreds of humans / All opening the door, saying, ‘Hello, Newman.’” (In a track about embracing your loneliness, there’s always room for a Seinfeld reference.)
The protagonist is visited from a doppelgänger in the 49-second “Lookalike” (“He don’t look like me but we look alike!”). He turns to medicating his problem on the wonderful single “Fired Up” and acts out in the fatalistic rage of “Dimed Out,” in which Stickles screams, “As long as there’s a law, I’ll be a criminal.”
Then, the epic ten-minute chapter “More Perfect Union,” a callback to the band’s 2010 release The Monitor, starts soft and quiet, but gets louder and faster before it swerves into a deranged punk score. In its final two minutes, a repeated melody cycles around and around until it swings into a dizzying carnival ride of instrumentation, followed by a 78-second silent intermission.
A new act of the story opens with “Sun Salutation,” in which a choir repurposes a Catholic aphorism for the Egyptian sun god: “Glory to Ra in the highest.”
Later our hero turns to get his fix in “Fatal Flaw” in which he says he’s “waiting on some drug deal all the time.” The album closes with “Stable Boy,” which is Stickles alone with a wheezy chord organ. The track was recorded on cassette, the same method as the first verse on the opening track of Titus’s debut The Airing of Grievances. This makes for a symmetrical career benchmark, if this is the band’s final bow.
Tragedy is an excellent counterpart to The Monitor, a lo-fi and relentlessly vicious concept album that likens the brutality and violence of the Civil War to the all-around bummer of living in Jersey. Take, for example, the Monitor’s third track; it’s bookended with (a) a warbly reading of a letter from Abraham Lincoln, in which he pouts, “I am now the most miserable man living,” and (b) the whole band sing-screaming the panicky refrain “You will always be a loser!” nearly thirty consecutive times.
The group is not only a skilled conductor of musicianship, but of storytelling as well. Whereas Monitor was a barbaric feat, Tragedy is polished and manicured, but still remarkably savage. It’s wildly ambitious and pays off handsomely. It’s a tragedy, but it’s undoubtedly a triumph.
This story was originally published for The Daily Emerald on July 30, 2015 at http://www.dailyemerald.com/2015/07/30/titus-andronicus-explores-new-aesthetic-of-anxiety-in-the-most-lamentable-tragedy/
More stories I’ve written for the Emerald can be found here.