[sic] Magazine

Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

In the literate punk world, Patrick Stickles and his Titus Andronicus stand head and shoulders above most save, perhaps, only for Fucked Up. While obvious and less transparent Shakespearean tell-tales abound (The Most Lamentable Tragedy’s title is culled from the 1599 quarto edition of Romeo & Juliet), Stickles’ willingness to tackle even bigger themes first became evident on his 2010 masterpiece The Monitor, a triumphant 65-minute concept album based on the American Civil War and which was framed with bagpipe solos and E-Street sax choruses against the tribulations of modern New Jersey living.

With only an iffier, more straightforward offering in 2012 marring a great run, TMLT is the punk-rock six-piece’s fourth LP. A five-act, 29-track rock-opera punctuated by undulating drone asides, cacophonous capture of the band tuning up, near-spoken word, monastic chorus work and pretentious silent “intermissions”, as well as featuring a cast of guests including Owen Pallett on violin, its convoluted narrative arc follows a fictional pair of doppelgängers through to a series of segued learnings and revelations. It’s a mind-boggling endeavour, one that requires the suspension of your disbelief to even attempt to navigate, so easy as it is to lose the cut of Stickles’ drunken jib without a lyric sheet to hand.

Jumping off the metaphorical page, however, are thematic returns to The Monitor. The nihilistic “No Future” series continues with both trademark slurred bluster and piano-pounded balladry, not to mention a number of attacks on consumerism. On the other hand, the spirited folk-punk of “More Perfect Union” can’t help, of course, but conjure its very similarly titled sister “A More Perfect Union”, the 10-minute track here sprawling to a rollicking blow-out that rings with heavy riffs nabbed from “Live And Let Die” and/or Sabbath. It’s a track that resolutely brings one act to a close as does “Stable Boy” the LP, which, despite its wheezy accordion lead, both echoes the Irish standard “The Wild Rover” and borrows lyrics from “Four Score And Seven” as Stickles, or his protagonist – it’s not always easy to parse the blurred lines – is once again “born to die”.

At the other end of the scale, Stickles breathes life into a two-part cover of Daniel Johnston’s “I Lost My Mind” via a jaunty piano line. A further cover though, a relatively faithful but unnecessary stab at The Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes”, smacks of indulgence. So too does an uneventful rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” – no matter its narrative device. Whilst it clearly hasn’t, this beg-borrow-and-steal approach lends TMLT a sense of having been cobbled together from off-cuts, sounding at times like the mess The Monitor frequently threatened to be.

As singer-songwriter, a good portion of Titus Andronicus’s appeal, though, has obviously always rested with Stickles and on his sloppy growl. Without him Titus Andronicus are just a Springsteen-leaning punk-rock band with keyboards, and tracks like “Stranded (On My Own)” and “Come On, Siobhan” prove it. Stickles, on particularly unhinged form during the former, has the raw magnetism to elevate FM friendly riffs into something special, whereas the latter, inadvisably stripped of Stickles’ snarl, is symptomatic of a couple of blander tunes which simply don’t have the hooks to compensate.

Two long cuts aside, the aforementioned “More Perfect Union” and the schizophrenic “(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID”, which lurches from strains of “Smoke On The Water” to choral lament to breakneck thrash, TMLT’s rapid-fire running order offers up a breathless smash-and-grab in which its weaker moments are quickly drowned out. A 30-second punk blast here, speeding sub-minute riffs and locked-in shred there. Bar-room bouncers “Lonely Boy” and “Mr. E. Mann” (mystery man) even crowbar in a classic rock ‘n’ roll solo or two. And then there’s the pumping single, “Dimed Out”, a snotty, garage-punk anthem in which rolling drums and chiming guitars urge your fists to ball during contortions to melody and frenzied sax. It’s truly as rousing an F.U. as has been heard since Japandroids unleashed Post-Nothing.

TMLT leaves it to “Fatal Flaw” to do its real talking though. Through an irresistible curtain of piano, hand claps and up-tempo heartland rock it spells out the obvious. Stickles, his unnamed alter-ego, Titus Andronicus and TMLT as a whole aren’t perfect and everyone knows it. A statement like this is supposed to be bombastic. If it made too much sense no-one would be inclined to unpick its ugly seams. TMLT is a rich and soiled tapestry that tries to map out a coherent tale as complicated as the human psyche. That Stickles nearly manages it in but 93 minutes confirms TMLT as one of those times when the taking-part really is almost as rewarding as winning.

Best track: “Dimed Out”

~The Most Lamentable Tragedy is released August 7th 2015 via Merge.~