Album Review: Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
When Patrick Stickles first announced that his band Titus Andronicus would release a 29-song rock opera about manic depression, the excitement among fans was matched with an anxious fear. Could Stickles really deliver something more ambitious than The Monitor?
The now infamous proclamation was a bold move for the veteran punk, a phrase I don’t get to write often. “It’s like if you decide that you don’t ever want to be part of straight society so you go out and get some face tattoos or something,” Stickles told Grantland.
“It’s to say, like, even if I want to someday sell out my current principles, I won’t be able to get a straight job with these face tats. [In my case], I wouldn’t be able to put out some underwhelming, 40-minute, bland, drab thing. I wouldn’t have that option without significant embarrassment to myself.”
In the context of the Titus Andronicus’ discography, The Most Lamentable Tragedy encompasses sounds and instrumentation that fans will already be familiar with. Patrick Stickles’ seething voice leads the charge flanked by thunderous guitar riffs, elegant piano play, beautiful strings and horns, and a chorus of backup vocals which blend together in glorious sonic anarchy. The real innovation found on Titus Andronicus’ fourth album comes in the form of Stickles’ storytelling and songwriting as interpreted by the band.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy is best understood not as a rock album, but as a based-on-a-true-story rock opera. In terms of ethos and content its most recent comparable album is Green Day’s American Idiot (2004), however in the context of Patrick Stickles’ creative process, there is no better comparable than The Who’s Quadrophenia (1973).
Just as Pete Townshend was forced to create a new masterpiece in a post-Tommy world, so too did Patrick Stickles box himself in when he declared a 29-song rock opera was on the way. In a similar parallel, Tommy will forever be remembered as The Who’s best work, just as Titus Andronicus be forever linked to the instant classic The Monitor, but to ignore the depth and quality of their later works would be a grand mistake.
Titus Andronicus’ fourth release is without the cultural references neatly fit into previous albums, however I argue TMLT is the most literal of all four Titus albums. Having freed himself to write in the world of a fictional big city (New York), Patrick Stickles (our protagonist hero), has provided himself the room to write what he knows more than ever before, and the result is an excellent piece of villany.
Act 1 of The Most Lamentable Tragedy begins as Local Business did, illustrating a dark worldview from the perspective of the narrator. After a soothing opening intro, listeners are thrust back into the No Future storyline once again. Everything is still inherently worthless, and our hero can begin his journey from a familiar dungeon of despair.
Few bands can get away with a refrain like “I hate to be awake” in their opening song, but those familiar with Titus Andronicus know what they’re in for. Light-hearted rallying cries like “You will always be a loser” are the lifeblood of the band. On the surface, these lyrics seem dark and twisted, however once the context is revealed, the line takes on a whole new light:
“So now in a Rock Ridge pharmacy I will be waiting for me man
But there is another, down in a dungeon, who never gave up the fight
And he’ll be forever screaming, sometimes I hear him say, on a quiet night he says:”
You will always be a loser
You will always be a loser, man!”
Patrick Stickles isn’t calling the listener a loser, he is illuminating the dark feelings he has about himself. It is the strongest aspect of Patrick Stickles’ songwriting: to make light of a dark, dark, world. The reality is that self-loathing commonly accompanies depression, and therefore the concept is tackled with Stickles’ honest and emotional delivery throughout TMLT.
“Since then it’s been a struggle just to stay alive
Suicide seems superior than trying to survive
That’s why when Im in yr sight, there’ll be no sign of a smile
But the sound of a sigh I am happy to provide”
There’s little brightening up this passage, but as the darkest point of our hero’s journey, it is an understandable perspective when (again) considering the context. One track later on “Mr. E Mann” a random act of kindness provides our hero the perspective he so desperately needs, opening the door to a more positive outlook throughout the remainder of Act II and the hero’s journey.
While the first half of The Most Lamentable Tragedy is more cohesive, the real meat of the album begins with our hero’s transition from depression to mania during Act II. On “Fired Up” and “Dimed Out” listeners find our hero returning to challenge familiar foes in faith and family, and not since The Airing Of Grievances has Titus Andronicus sounded so angry, which is appropriate when comparing the timeline of Stickles’ life with that of the narrative within TMLT.
Following the same logic, Acts III, IV and V of The Most Lamentable Tragedy are the most tumultuous. As much as “Into The Void (Filler)” may be the song that best reflects the stengths and ethos of Titus Andronicus, its placement before a pair of slower (but necessary) songs to close the album often leaves me wanting more. It is important, however, to point out that these structural frustrations are merely a nuisance on the surface. Deep down, the structural rigidity (and ultimate finality) of TMLT may be its most redeeming quality, especially if it turns out the be the last full album recorded by the band.
Just as Patrick Stickles opened the Titus Andronicus catalogue on The Airing Of Grievances playing a chord organ recorded on cassette tape, so too does he close The Most Lamentable Tragedy with the same aesthetic on “Stable Boy”. It is an elegant touch, one driven home by the final lines of the album, all of which can be boiled down to a declaration direct from Patrick Stickles “I won’t kill myself, I promise.”
If Titus Andronicus are to leave some kind of legacy, it is all to be found on The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Patrick Stickles and the band have lived through rock and roll hell, and while their frontman is correct when he says they were “sold a bankrupt dream in the boom days of the late ‘90s major-label gold rush,” there will always be more Reagans to hunt, and at the least it is heartening to know that Stickles and his music will continue to rage on into their dying days.
We need more bands like Titus Andronicus. Their ability to audibly brighten the darkest aspects of society has remained mostly uncontested over the last decade. Despite the talk of tragedy above, the greatest of them all could be that The Most Lamentable Tragedy is Titus Andronicus’ last album. It will not become their most popular, but I believe it is their best.