Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Love is war
Leaving home can be hard. Titus Andronicus frontman and primary songwriter Patrick Stickles left his native Glen Rock, New Jersey, to follow a girlfriend to Massachusetts. It didn't work out. His mistake, our gain. From that broken affair and an obsession with Ken Burns' epic documentary, The Civil War, comes this, one of the year's finest and most enthralling albums, equal parts punk and Americana, classic rock and roots; it's a composition so complex and riotous it demands a lyric sheet and a glass of whiskey at every turn.
Named after the historically revolutionary — and eventually, sunken — battleship developed in the 1850s, The Monitor was a vessel bustling with bravery, paranoia, desperation, sorrow, and lots of booze and excrement. These are Stickles' themes, too, and while his parallels between the war within our country and his own pissed existence are awfully muddied once the first song — the throat-clenching "A More Perfect Union" — is over, he and his bandmates have dragged us deep down into the muck. We sit passenger-side, watching the landmarks of his native New Jersey fly by like road signs on the Jersey Turnpike. "Tramps like us, baby we were born to die," Stickles yarls on the opener, simultaneously defaming and paying homage to his state's musical godfather, before the band tumbles into the album's oft-repeated refrain: "The enemy is everywhere." Throughout, friends and collaborators like Craig Finn and Cassie Ramone chip in interstitial snatches of speeches from relevant Civil War-era figures: Abe Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Walt Whitman, etc. The speeches create a disquieting terror between these rip-roaring songs; they are the meditative calm before and after every storm.
And things do get stormy. Musically, the band is fuller than before: shambolic saloon piano, desert-quiet harmonica solos, dueling ripchord guitar, knee-knocking fiddles. They have grand ambitions here, working out a long, twisted song cycle. There's also drama in every word Stickles utters. He is verbose but precise; literate but low-hanging. There are literally dozens of quotable lines, little bon mots twisted from other sources (The Dark Knight, Billy Bragg, local haunt The Glen Rock Inn), or wholly original lamentations ("You will always be a loser!", "I'm sorry mama, but I've been drinkin' again," "Give me anything but another year in exile!"). Stickles is also an increasingly intuitive vocalist, able to avoid the Conor Oberst-lite tag that dogged him after the release of the band's 2009 debut, The Airing of Grievances. His wail is louder and leaner than before, his whisper tremulous and haunting.
Perhaps a warning is required here: Eight of the 10 songs on The Monitor exceed five minutes. Closer "The Battle of Hampton Roads," is a whopping 14 minutes. Be not afraid. This is a striving young band, but also an enormously accomplished one. Full of feeling and fury, The Monitor deserves extended attention.