There is a special place in my heart reserved for artists who go that extra step, those who think bigger and longer and more complicated. It’s why Grow / Decompose is my favourite album of the year, why Separation Sunday is possibly the greatest album of all time, and why books like The Lost Scrapbook and Infinite Jest are masterpieces of the highest order. One of the reasons these works are so impressive, I think, is that anything that sets your work apart from the Great Mass can (and most likely will) prove counter-productive in your mission as an artist, i.e. reach other, hopefully like-minded people and share a mutually beneficial message. This is especially true of works of great length, where the amount of time and effort required from the consumer is greater, and therefore their likelihood of revisiting the piece (in order to connect the dots and realize the artist’s intentions) falls dramatically.
Titus Andronicus, a band not shy of pushing musical boundaries, are a case in point. Their new album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (hereinafter referred to as TMLT), is a 29-song, five-act “rock opera” centring on an unnamed protagonist (hereinafter referred to as Our Hero), based loosely on Patrick Stickles, and his battle with mental illness. After meeting his doppelgänger, Our Hero is sent “on a transformative odyssey”, confronting the past and living the present and looking at the future in a new way. Clocking in at over 90 minutes, the album is ambitious and demanding, as if, lost for words, Stickles gave up trying to convey his manic depression in normal terms and went all out with his band. There’s something to be said here about the noble pursuit of ‘difficult’ (challenging?) art in a world where singles have replaced albums and the news is presented in lists, but it’s probably been said before and it will be said again. So just know this: How much you get out of the record is pretty much up to you.
‘The Angry Hour’ opens like the mist lifting from our tale, the peaceful note interrupted by harsh, lurching drone like the awful realisation it was all just a dream. Indeed, the opening lines on ‘No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant’ confirm this, going some way to paint Our Hero’s mindset from the off:
“Some days start with an earthquake
The bed shakes until it breaks
And I hate to be awake
Most days start with a dull ache
Enough weight to crush my face
And I hate to be awake”
The rest of the track describes depression and self-loathing in typically imaginative fashion, conveying not only the bleakness but also the imprisonment of serious mental health issues (Stickles refers to his locale (read: mind) as a “dungeon” and a “house of pain”). The track ends with a refrain of “I hate to be awake!”, another addition to the band’s repertoire of cathartic, self-flagellating choruses, and from here it’s clear that Our Hero’s rut is dark and deep.
However, the growling, soaring ‘Stranded (On My Own)’ hints at another side to Our Hero, a “crazy heart”, the upward cycles of manic depression. Musically, the song is boisterous and brash, while the lyrics are pessimistic and forlorn, the conflict between the track’s two elements decidedly bipolar. ‘Lonely Boy’ is similarly dissonant, a veritable rock song with an ending like the theme to the best 80s kids cartoon they never made, the lyrics charting Our Hero’s loneliness (“I ain’t gonna leave the building/Just lie here and stare at the ceiling”) and his simmering, internalized anger (“Stay away, he doesn’t wanna hurt you/A lonely boy is an angry boy”).
Similarly, the midway sojourn into hope and belief in love is dressed in mixed signals, from lyrical doubt to heavy instrumentation. ‘(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID’ sees Our Hero turn to sex as a possible escape, although he finds he wants to spill his problems onto this near stranger, form a real, nourishing human connection. The song concludes with him asking sincere questions aloud, her already asleep. “Talking myself again,” he sings. “Talking to myself again”. However, this female (eventually named as Siobhán) returns in the following songs. Our Hero claims to be able to control the “something” inside him on ‘Funny Feeling’, and worries about the consequences with Siobhán should he lose his grip (“She’s looking after me / She doesn’t know the kind of things I could do if I lose control”). Things take a downward spin once more, but, optimistically, the last proper song ‘Stable Boy’ is an ode to living hyper-aware of death, preaching life not through some escapism or feigned ignorance but instead through an understanding of permanence. While it might sound strange of a song so preoccupied with death, the track is triumphant, altruism in it’s biological form, Our Hero speaking from a position of clarity in the hope that others will offer similar advice should he ever find himself again thinking irrational thoughts.
This high/low combination is present across the album’s 29 songs, along with a near countless number of musical, literary and philosophical references and nods to the Titus Andronicus back catalogue. The narrative, structured into five acts, is pretty clear for the most part (at least if you have the lyrics to hand), but the change in tempo and general atmosphere is less organised, with Stickles going from 0 to 100 and back again whether the story warrants it or not. This acts as a further complication of an already challenging album, with several songs sounding, at least musically, like epiphanies, before turning out to be false dawns or else sadness or anger dressed up differently. But of course, life (and especially mental illness) isn’t a neat Freytagian pyramid, so why should a representation of it conform to expectations?
The other thing that doesn’t conform to much at all is the musical style across TMLT. ‘Mr E. Mann’ picks up from Local Business’s bar-room jangle, while ‘Fired Up’ is classic punk rock, the slow(ish) verses’ clear and coherent lyrics punctuated with louder sections (including the “FIRED UP!” refrain). ‘Dimed Out’ is a full-throttle jumble of the band’s past and present sound, ‘More Perfect Union’ is a brooding 9-minute marathon, ‘Sun Salutation’ is a hymn of a forgotten religion, and ‘No Future Part V’ a piano ballad. There are nods to Springsteen and The Replacements, The Rolling Stones and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. There’s a Pogues cover, a Daniel Johnston quasi-cover, a rendition of Auld Lang Syne. And then a whole lot more. You are left with the impression that the band have said “fuck it, we’re doing it our way”, rejecting a clear genre in favour of whatever felt right at any given time. This kind of zealous self-belief in their own work is interesting, as it’s at odds with Our Hero’s struggles to accept himself as Himself, and sees Titus Andronicus cutting swathes through the field of wannabes, imposters and pretenders and stepping up to the plate as the twenty-first century’s bona fide punk rock band.
Closer ‘A Moral’ consists of the same drone from the opening, ending on a sharp intake of breath which could prelude ‘The Angry Hour’ or even ‘Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ’ (the opening track of the band’s debut album), as if we are going to do it all over again in a constant loop. The effect is an important one, not only mirroring the endless battle that is mental illness, or indeed life itself, but also encouraging the listener to immerse themselves in the work. Because that seems to be the key to the whole record – immersion.
Because, even after 1000+ words, trying to write about this seems besides the point. Stickles is trying to communicate something vast and complicated and quite possibly incommunicable. It might work and it might not, but that’s between you and him. Besides, I could be wrong, but I have a sneaking suspicion that every review so far, be they claiming success or failure, is little more than a guess, a sneaking suspicion based upon χ repeat listens. The album is just too large to properly judge in weeks and probably months. If that alone means the album doesn’t work then fine, Titus Andronicus are not the band for you.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy is out now on Merge Records.