Bloated and Verbose
Titus Andronicus was engineered to appeal to bearded guys who write about music on the internet. For starters, they share their name with a Shakespeare drama. For continue-ers, frontman and chief architect Patrick Stickles writes compulsively bookish, reference-laden and frequently allegorical lyrics about American history to the backdrop of buzz-saw punk guitars, with the occasional grand piano for dramatic flavor. The intellectual New Jerseyites worship equally at the altars of Garden Elder Statesmen Bruce Springsteen and Glenn Danzig, floating somewhere in the vast gray area between hardcore punk and indie rock – something like if Against Me! ramped up their already heavy Replacements influence and spent their time reading Faulkner novels instead of Karl Marx treatises.
But sometimes it seems like the harder you try to like +@, as they like to style themselves, the more apparent their flaws are. And all their multi-volume epic sagas and self-referential…ness inevitably invites a certain level of scrutiny. For one, their sound is markedly unbalanced. The warm, comforting buzz of Andronicus’ twin guitar has never quite matched the amount of gravel in Stickles’ throat. It’s almost like if you took away the self-righteous “smart sensitive guy” lyrics delivered in that raw-throated bark, they’d be the most bland, boring band imaginable – like Kings of Leon with slightly louder drums.
Well, the boys are back in town with what is surely their grandest, most ambitious statement yet: The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a five-act rock opera about Patrick Stickles’ struggle with manic depression… according to everyone except Patrick Stickles. Consequence of Sound calls TMLT a “complicated metaphor about manic depression, melding elements of philosophy, psychology, and science fiction through the plight of one troubled protagonist’s inner demons,” while Titus himself cryptically describes “this superhuman race has this curse upon it… that are ultimately doomed to destroy themselves.” Merge Records insist that the new album is “a transformative odyssey” in which “long held secrets are revealed” and that “the very thing that sustains our protagonist may be the thing to destroy him.”
Great. Okay. Everyone likes a fun story. But like most rock operas, you probably wouldn’t have gotten a shred of any of that upon first listen if you didn’t have the prerequisite knowledge of the narrative and an official lyrics sheet in front of you. The Most Lamentable Tragedy is smaller scope but bigger in arrangement – as well as a hell of a lot longer – than anything +@ have ever done before. And after dedicating a mere 43 minutes to the entirety of the American Civil War on The Monitor, writing a ninety-minute, five act epic about yourself comes off as, well, just a bit conceited. Tommy does not have five acts. The Wall does not have five acts. This album is longer than the film 12 Angry Men, which is something to keep in mind while you trudge across the dual gatefold.
TMLT opens with part IV of the band’s No Future saga and “Stranded on My Own,” both of which are built upon Titus’ standby foundation of earnestly jack-hammered major chords and the unhinged, wild-man howl that walks the strange line separating The Who’s “The Seeker” from Black Flag’s “My War.” That exact same long-winded, run on sentence of a description can be applied to all but (maybe) six (tops) of the double LP’s twenty-nine songs, and three of those exceptions are supposed to be cinematic interludes. “Dimed Out” is another of the aforementioned uplifting, barreling ragers, but the muted-sounding guitars persist.
“Look Alive” and “Lookalike” are the first real unexpected turns in which +@’s undiluted hardcore roots poke out of the dirt for a combined total of less than two minutes, which seems an appropriate amount of time. “I’m Going Insane” draws from the more melodic, mid-paced work of Dead Kennedys and Social Distortion, but so does every vaguely post-hardcore band.
And then there’s the looming presence of The Boss to contend with. Like contemporaries J. Roddy Walston and Deer Tick, Titus Andronicus have long imbibed the ragged hipster honkey-tonk and boogie woogie beat of many a Springsteen and Bob Seger tune. This is seen most heavily in “Lonely Boy,” which features a dad-rock saxophone solo, a phenomenon that’s making a decent comeback albeit couched in a certain level of irony. “Come On, Siobhan” sounds like a Born to Run outtake thanks to all the organs and wistful strings until it descends into a half-time barroom stomp. But they’ve graduated from being influenced by Springsteen to straight-up aping Bruce and his Americana kin. Mr. E. Mann might as well be named “Mr. E. Street Band.” “Lost My Mind’ has the cadence of an unappreciated 1980’s anthem, like a John Cougar Mellencamp album cut that never got promoted to single.
The stark piano ballads “More Perfect Union” and “No Future V: In Endless Dreaming” are both welcome respites from from the mammoth blur of pop-influenced punk and indie rock, but even they can’t be called stand-out tracks. Stickles’ weak attempt to parse out his songs’ main ingredients for the sake of variety doesn’t make The Most Lamentable Tragedy feel any less bloated and verbose, which are two adjectives you should never have to use to describe punk rock.
Like Coheed and Cambria, Titus Andronicus have chosen to expand their tale into non-musical formats, specifically a full-length film. The movie is a visual representation of the album,” says Stickles. “Think of it as 33 music videos for 33 songs. But they’re not going to be that fancy. It’s not going to be like a Puff Daddy video.”
Hey, at least Puffy’s stupid, flashy rap videos aren’t a waste of fucking time.