Review Summary: a less perfect unionA Productive Cough
raises the curtain on some movie-credits piano notes and Patrick Stickles doing his best "ooh, ooh yeah"
. It's not a fake-out or a joke start, it's the first of many signs of every Titus fan's deepest-held fear. The drunken bardsmiths of sloppy, angry punk have finally gone soft, and the rot goes all the way to the core.
To be fair, there is a universe where this wouldn't be a bad move for Titus Andronicus, and it's not too far removed from our own. If lessons learned from The Most Lamentable Tragedy
– the band's best album, even half an hour over its maximum acceptable length – had been applied to the comparatively lean 45 minutes of A Productive Cough
, we could have had something special. After all, that album lived and died on its dynamics – the way "Into the Void" and its revolutionist rock sashayed into the piano balladry of "No Future V: In Endless Dreaming", "Dimed Out" riding its roughshod momentum perfectly into the solemn musings of "More Perfect Union", you get the idea. Unfortunately, Titus fixed the album length issue without applying their problem-solving abilities to either their shocking lack of consistency or their starry-eyed worship of better artists, both of which allow a desperately ill-advised nine minute cover of "Like a Rolling Stone" to exist. As it turns out, at a glacially paced seven songs which all drag long past their shelf lives, A Productive Cough
feels like Titus Andronicus' longest album despite being the second shortest, and lands as their worst despite its grand and heartfelt ambitions to the contrary.
It becomes obvious as soon as "Real Talk" makes itself known via 80s porno horns and a hip-hop hype man shtick. Essentially, large portions of this album are hilariously misjudged, and while previous albums had enough material to justify skipping to the really good sections, there are so few songs on A Productive Cough
that it's easier to just skip to the end of the damn thing. The aforementioned execrable Dylan cover is the clear winner to the bottom, with "Home Alone" and "Real Talk" in a close race to second place; both wring seven-plus-minute runtimes out of a call-and-response vamp on about four lines, Stickles clearly having exhausted all his good rhymes in the first five minutes of the album with the too-showy "Number One (In New York)". Which is a shame, because the moments that forego the fucking immodest modesty it takes to dedicate ten minutes to Dylan hero worship find the band in a genuinely new and interesting place. Stickles wisely gives up the mic for the utterly gorgeous "Crass Tattoo", with Megg Farrell's sincere vocal and a stripped-down instrumental giving us a glimpse into that alternate universe I mentioned before: one where 'Titus Andronicus going soft' means a graceful and elegant cede to a palette of quiet beauty. Nothing else exists in that same dimension, although "Above the Bodega (Local Business)" and "Mass Transit Madness (Goin' Loco')" make the most of their shorter runtimes to inject some energy. The former song is the closest Titus come to exploring the janky pop style they had sent feelers into with "Fatal Flaw" and "Come On, Siobhán", a potential direction far more enticing than the one we got on this album.
For a genre born out of a desire to tear down idols and turn away from blind worship, it's frustrating how modern punk bands refuse to let go of their obsession with the styles and ideologies espoused by artists of the past (even this band's finest song takes a second from its 14 minute lyrical onslaught to remind us how much the band love Bruce Springsteen, in case you'd somehow forgotten). Titus managed to outlive the death of the Springsteen-ified, piano-and-horns punk trend by evolving and transforming, diving into snotty pop, ambient and progressive landscapes with their most ambitious release yet. A Productive Cough
should have refined and furthered those musical ambitions, but basically, it didn't – they're right back where they came from in a dying scene, idolising the genre's past and ignoring its future when they could have easily been the writers of it instead.