Review Summary: "I've destroyed everything that wouldn't make me more like Bruce Springsteen"
Everything about The Airing of Grievances indicated to me that Titus Andronicus are supposed to be a terrible band. Their vocalist can’t sing, their musicianship is sloppy, and they always sound a tequila shot away from puking and passing out on your mum’s unreasonably expensive couch. Not to mention, they’re named after the most woefully violent play Shakespeare ever put his name to, of which even smarmy, toupeed scholars gawk as they polish their monocles. But The Airing of Grievances was brilliant; a breath of fresh air amongst the growing number of bands experimenting with a lo-fi aesthetic experiencing a revitalization. Enter The Monitor and with it dispel every doubt Titus Andronicus aren’t one of the best. For one thing, it’s only the bands second album and one of the most ambitious sophomore efforts in recent memory at that. Even from the bands own mouths, its absurdity is a little difficult to explain. It’s been touted as a concept record for the civil war, except anachronistic and with pop culture references to The Dark Knight and Curb Your Enthusiasm, amongst others. It’s about how “they’re all out to get us” but “maybe not”. Perhaps most fittingly, it’s about “trying to live decently in indecent times”. And that’s all before you get to the intimidating track listing, which includes a 14-minute closer and two 9-minute back-to-back centre pieces. You certainly can’t accuse these guys of shying away from a challenge.
The truth is The Monitor basks in its own self-hyped extravagance. Though everything about it just reeks of wild, exorbitant self-indulgence and complete disregard for what anyone thinks, that’s a huge portion of its charm. The very fact that a 14 minute closer from a no-frills punk band actually works, and with an energy that often seems unparalleled, is reason enough for a ‘holy ***’ to pass appropriately through the lips of any doubtful listener. It isn’t just the sign of a band coming into their own but of breaking every barrier they once had. This is Titus Andronicus clutching their balls and jumping straight into the deep end, with no Wendy the lifeguard to bail them out if they can’t quite hack it. Where The Airing of Grievances preached, The Monitor calls to arms.
A lot of this flair comes down to the image the band projects of themselves through their music, and particularly lead singer Patrick Stickles. He operates under a makeshift working mans existentialism, articulating bar-lit tales of failure and boozy self-loathing in a way that almost feels inspiring, betraying its subject matter to a point where you’re singing along to the “you will always be a loser!” gang vocals as if it's something to be celebrated. His cynical, strained shouts instill a sense of urgency, paranoia, as if his life and yours depend on what he’s saying, though underlined by an obvious inclination for the melodramatic. Stickles falls perfectly between the point of being too disenchanted to be content with a middle class existence and too carefree to be nihilistic. He’s sarcastic, he’s bitter, he’s angry, and he is, simply put, one of the finest purveyors of the modern, sordid, post-teen anthem, perhaps only outshined by the fanatical Jeff Rosenstock.
Yet for all of Stickles’ street corner philosophizing, there’s always a constant: the music chugs along, like a locomotive, reflecting on his sharp introspection with enthusiastic, galloping instrumentation. And at its finest, The Monitor is bustling and rowdy, brave and joyfully uproarious. “A Pot In Which To Piss” begins slow and slurred before shifting gears into a Springsteen-esque hair-in-the-wind E Street jam, though vacant of The Boss’ aged optimism (“You ain’t never been no virgin, kid / You’ve been ***ed from the start”). “Titus Andronicus Forever” is a 2-minute gang shout of “The enemy is everywhere!” and the reflective “Theme from Cheers” explodes with the rallying cry: “Give me a Guinness / Give me a keystone light / Give me a kegger / on a Friday night!” and it suggests exactly what Titus Andronicus excel at: peel away the layers and what you have here is a damn good time. These songs feel equally at home on a battlefield as they do in your buddy’s crazy, liquor-stained basement; sprawling tributes to artists like Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements that beg to be shouted and screamed far above the volume knob on the stereo will turn.
The basis on which everything really falls into place, where this becomes more than just a lo-fi punk album made by indie kids with a Springsteen fetish, is one that is sure to polarize opinions, particularly critical; it shoots for the gut. It’s an album that focuses so heavily on feeling and of hitting whatever connection it can with a listener, grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and pulling them into their world. You don’t feel a connection with Stickles but rather with everything he represents, everything he sings about, you’re shoulder to shoulder in a crowded room of everyone else going through the same problems, the same worries and when he cries: “It’s still us against them!” you know whose side you’re on. The aesthetic built off Stickles’ heightened sense of discontent isn’t one of overwhelming self-pity but rather acceptance, to make the most of what you have, and the music echoes those sentiments in its carefree extravagance. At the end of the day, The Monitor’s brashness pays off through the ambition, confidence, and talent of its visionaries. This is what punk rock is all about.