Album review: Titus Andronicus – "The Monitor"

When it comes to Titus Andronicus’ “The Monitor” there is no such thing as hyperbole. There simply isn’t a way to describe this album well enough to get across the point of how amazingly complete, perfectly executed, and complex it is. There is so much emotional and musical substance contained within that the album seems to burst at the seams demanding to be heard. For the first time in a long time a band has put out an album that has equal amounts substance and passion. Equal parts rock and roll swagger and punk rock attitude with reckless abandon.

Titus Andronicus' 2010 release "The Monitor"

The album takes its name from the first iron-clad warship that was used by the Union forces during the American Civil War. Singer/guitarist/lyricist Patrick Stickles uses the civil war as a concept to which he compares his own life. The Civil War in the United States was an unfortunate circumstance that was ultimately a necessary part in the growth of the country. Stickles sees his own life’s problems—and adolescence—in much the same way. One gets the impression from the outset of the album that he is running from something. He leaves New Jersey for Boston. His intentions are stated in the opening track “A More Perfect Union”, saying “I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey”. It isn’t too very long before he realizes his mistake: “I realized too late that I never should have left New Jersey”. He is running from problems, not willing to discover the root cause. This comes back to hurt him because naturally “[he] thought that [he] had gotten away but they followed [him] to 02143” That being the postal code for Somerville, Massachutsetts which is just outside the city of Boston. Thankfully, through the course of the album he comes out on the other side of it victorious. These songs serve, at once, as a celebration of victory with a warning to others that will surely go through the same trials AND as an expression of his own skepticism about surviving the war that he is essentially fighting with himself.

Though he is fighting with himself first and foremost, he does label “the enemy”. He let’s us know that “the enemy is everywhere!” throughout both “Titus Andronicus Forever” and “….And Ever”. This is after he realizes that moving to Boston was not the answer to his problems, whatever they may be. He never comes right out and says exactly what he did. We just learn bits and pieces, generalities, that paint us the picture of his being ashamed with himself. This becomes clear in “No Future Part III: Escape from No Future” wherein Patrick sings “I used to look myself in the mirror at the end of every day, but I took the one thing that made me beautiful and I threw it away.” Very powerful and honest stuff. We are witnessing him become his own worst enemy.

There is more going on than simply Stickles running from his past. There is a fairly complex concept taking shape. Everything about this album is thoroughly post-modern. Excerpts taken from speeches and letters of important figures involved in the Civil War that introduce and close many of the tracks are juxtaposed with Stickles’ comments about his own state of affairs. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family there would not be one cheerful face on Earth,” Stickles quickly segues into “No Future Part III: Escape from No Future” which begins with the lyric “everything makes me nervous, nothing feels good, for no reason…” The feelings of dread and alienation are absolutely palpable, sung in a depressed tone of voice that is recorded to sound even more hollow. He blurs the line even further between the narration and his own commentary by inserting equally well-written declarations into some of the songs. Most noticeable is the end of “A More Perfect Union” where he states he exclaims, “I will be as harsh as truth, as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. I am an earnest. I will not equivocate, I will not excuse and I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard!

Stickles sings with passion and anguish. The element of honesty in his words can not be overlooked. The theme of running away from his problems develops into attempting to cover up his feelings the one way he knows how: drugs. “Smokin’s been okay so far, but I need something that works faster.” He says this right before declaring that he never wants to experience feelings ever again. At this time it is nearly beside the point what happened to him earlier in his life, he is now stepping into a world of despair voluntarily and one gets the impression that he knows exactly what he is in for but simply doesn’t care anymore. It is clear that he is getting really messed up on drugs in order to forget the way that he was treated in the past. The realization that he is only doing to himself what others were doing to him is now making that pain even worse. He doesn’t care about himself and he knows that nobody cares about him either.

References to the past are made, evoking the person that he feels he used to be and contrasts that with the person that he is now. “I surrendered what made me human and all that I thought was true. Now there’s a robot that lives in my brain, and he tells me what to do.” He has given into addiction. This double edged sword is a catalyst. He no longer has any feelings, or cares, but realizes now what he is doing to himself and is not happy with the person he is continuing to become. The opening of “A Pot in which to Piss” contains some of the most telling lyrics that reach back to Stickles’ days in High School. He tells us about his good grades, his winning smile and his pride in the 7” that his band had just released. These positive thoughts are not presented in a way that calls upon the listen to be happy. Instead there is an ominous drone blanketing his speech, letting us know that things aren’t going to stay placid for long. He sets himself up again by stating “You can’t make it on merit, not on merit and merit alone.” Now not only is he preventing himself from having feelings he is excusing himself from any opportunities that he once had. The only clue we get that someone else was involved, or that there was some slighting that happened is via the ultra bitter lyric in “Four Score and Seven”: “But when they see the kind of person that you really are, then you won’t be laughing so hard.”

Titus Andronicus live

Alcohol is a prime theme through many songs, most notably in “Theme from Cheers”. Nothing seems to be getting out of hand on the surface. A group of friends, sitting around, getting drunk, talking about the future. There is clearly an underlying pain that keeps creeping through though as described in the lyric, “So let’s get fucked up, and let’s pretend we’re all okay”. Things get darker still when Patrick admits that he needs to “escape from reality” followed by “I really don’t feel like doin’ this anymore.” It is right then that the song lurches forward to dreams about the future and the fond rememberances that they are all going to have, wondering why they were all so worried. “What the fuck was it for anyway?”

This brings into question time as an element used for the concept of this album. Yes, it is ‘kind of’ about the Civil War, which happened nearly 150 years ago, but it’s clearly about Stickle’s own life. But this album is as much about us, the listeners. We are the final link in the story, listening to this album finally brings some of these issues to rest as we are compelled to join the chant of “You will always be a loser” at the close of “No Future Part III: Escape from No Future” grows louder and stronger, becoming a battle cry. We are now a part of this album.

It may seem all very heavy handed to write an album with discrete references to the Civil War. It’s not exactly a popular topic among music fans in their teens and twenties. To be brash enough to compare ones own life to such an epic, bloody conflict strangely works on The Monitor. It works very well. Frighteningly well. Everyone can relate to the urgency and self-importance of growing up, making mistakes, defining oneself, the disintegration of idealism, etc. Life is a war. What’s important to realize here is that Stickles, like the soldier that he seems to be comparing himself to, is fighting. He’s fighting for his life, and he doesn’t want to stop to feel bad for himself. He’s screaming back at himself from the realization of what he is becoming and the possibility of what he could be and what he wants to be.

The post-modern element cannot be denied. From the outset, the first thing we hear is “are we ready to go?” spoken as if unaware that the mics are on. Are we listening to an album that is so set in its concept that the entire thing is pristine, with all the rough edges trimmed away? We are not. We are allowed to experience the music as if we were spectators to a very personal and heart-wrenching speech given directly to us. The repetitive weaving of speech and letter excerpts with the singer-songwriters own words rework a a personal space/time continuum that brings self-awareness to a whole new level. Or, could it be the other way around?

The music is not derivative, but that doesn’t mean that the band is afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves. Bruce Springsteen has been mentioned a million times before when talking about Titus Andronicus. It’s impossible to ignore that the music also shows a very prominent classic punk rock influence while utilizing trusted song elements like a 12 bar blues format and straight up boogie. Honest to goodness solos being traded off without a hint of irony. An important distinction of the Titus punk is that they steer clear of fighting “the man,” instead are caught up fighting with their own past. This album and this band are honest, more honest than I think many bands are. They are, also, fearless.

All of the influences are seamlessly put together, not as a tribute and not as some hipster type of ironic commentary on the music of the past, but instead as a development of these musical elements, showing that they have a place in new rock. The styles flow into and out of each other in a way that makes perfect sense and Titus pulls it off so convincingly that it never comes off as forced. The length of each of the tracks mark a fete unto itself as half of them come in at over 7 minutes long and none of the songs get tired and boring. This band is able to build and turn out new riffs as the minutes tick by. Endings of songs are carefully crafted such that they become beginnings to other songs, gently fading out and becoming new again.

Some songs have several sections to them, such as “Theme from Cheers”” which is divided into 3 distinct parts and are held together wonderfully despite the continuous variations in style. Guitar rock is traded for honky-tonk barroom piano as Stickles imagines himself as an old man reminiscing of the good old days. The band has the ability to start a song at the 10-second mark and continue to grow, even in “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” the 14 minute final track that doesn’t have any extraneous filling and contains some of the albums most dramatic music and shockingly honest lyrics.

The Monitor is a nearly flawless album from a band that is still very young, an absolutely mind-blowing combination of elements. Thoroughly post-modern, thoroughly American in every way imaginable— this band is so good and the writing is so smart it makes you wish that you lived in New Jersey. Now that is saying something.

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