Pitchfork is so rarely right these days that the event becomes somewhat analogous to a total solar eclipse. People gather in fields and point in awe, knowing this is something that may never occur again in their lifetime. There are few bands about which Pitchfork is usually correct and they are, in no particular order: The Hold Steady, Jet, LCD Soundsystem, and Titus Andronicus (in case you’re wondering, Pitchfork correctly despises Jet, as most thinking people do).
Titus Andronicus, named for Shakespeare’s most Michael Bay-ish play (Bay doesn’t direct Shakespeare, thank goodness, but Julie Taymor put together a pretty good film version of Titus featuring Anthony Hopkins), is a band of literary punks from New Jersey who won all my affection for their bruising debut, The Airing of Grievances. That album was a lovely slice of existential outrage that came into my life right when I needed it. And now, Titus Andronicus is back with The Monitor, named not for an episode of Seinfeld but for a Civil War ship.
Though The Monitor has been reported as a “loose concept album” or something similar, I suggest you drop that expectation right away. The Monitor contains myriad references to the Civil War (including quotes from Honest Abe Lincoln) but what this album is really about, when you get down to it, is breaking up. Vocalist Patrick Stickles moved to Massachusetts for a girl, they broke up, and the result is The Monitor. But, because Stickles is intelligent (sorry, Blink-182, real punks read books), the album ends up being a perfect reflection of the current American political climate – The Monitor is as much about Stickles’s recent break up as it is about a country breaking up with itself, much like it did during the Civil War (of course, the South doesn’t seem to be inclined to secede from the union these days, although the Texas State Board of Education has been seceding from reason at an alarming rate). Standout track “Four Score and Seven” puts it as succinctly as anyone can: “After 10,000 years, it’s still us against them.” And “Titus Andronicus Forever,” repeats, in bouncing sing-along fashion, “The enemy is everywhere.”
And musically, The Monitor is a big, angry rock record, every bit as satisfying as its predecessor and then some. There are more honky-tonk pianos on this album (especially on “A Pot in Which to Piss”, which also ends with the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn reading some Walt Whitman), some bagpipes (including on the overlong album closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads”), and even a ballady duet with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner (I still have some hopes that Wye Oak will end up being a good band. Titus Andronicus’s “To Old Friends and New” is one reason) that celebrates human contradiction with Stickles’s usual humor: “It’s all right, the way you piss and moan” gives way to “It’s all right, the way that you live.” But that’s not what I came to Titus Andronicus for; no, I want Stickles spitting venom and he doesn’t disappoint. On the second half of “Four Score and Seven,” he howls, “I struggle and stammer until I’m up to my ears/ in miserable quote-unquote art” and then mentions that “humans treat humans like humans treat hogs.” The song ends with a chorus of “It’s still us against them” before ending on “and they’re winning.” The Monitor is nothing if not a battle cry of “Fuck Them,” whoever they are (we all choose our Them, though, don’t we?); it even calls on us to “rally ’round the flag” on album opener “A More Perfect Union”, a song which scores points for a winning Billy Bragg reference (“I never wanted to change the world/ but I’m looking for a New New Jersey”) and paraphrases fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen with the less hopeful, “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to die.”
The reason The Monitor works as a breakup record is that, in a way that only Titus Andronicus can really do, it seems to sort of celebrate the disintegration of the relationship as a completely expected outcome. Stickles closes “Theme from Cheers” by asking, “What the fuck was it for anyway?” Of course, Patrick Stickles isn’t pleased that his relationship ended, but he seems to find some affirmation in the destruction. If he can’t have true love, he can have some whiskey and a beer and yell out his anger with equal parts fury and humor (he makes a reference about “pissing into the void” at one point, which puts a smile on my face. If you piss long into an abyss, will the abyss piss into you?).
“The Battle of Hampton Roads,” though about seven minutes too long, is still a fitting closer for The Monitor. The titular boat was involved in the first ever battle between ironclad warships, but the battle was a messy stalemate, which seems to reflect Stickles’s worldview at the end of the album. If you want to live by some sense of values, Stickles warns, “Prepare to be told/ ‘That shit’s gay, dude'” and, if love is a battlefield, that battle is the Battle of Hampton Roads and no one wins. At at the end of the day, Stickles is “as much of an asshole as I’ve ever been” and to his enemy (presumably this recent ex, who might be perversely honored to have partially inspired such an epic album) he says, “I’ve done to you what you’ve done to me.”
Is The Monitor a bit pretentious, and doesn’t it run a dire risk of falling into melodrama? Yes and yes. How does it overcome those two not-insignificant obstacles? From what I can tell, Titus Andronicus does it by keeping their sense of humor (Stickles claims every one of the rest of his days will be “a fart in the face of your idea of success”) and by rocking out with an impressively shambolic competence. The pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and swelling horns on The Monitor make it a triumphant rock record first and everything else it may or may not be second. Sometimes, you just need a beer and an excuse to yell and curse – for the second album in a row, Titus Andronicus has provided me with my preferred soundtrack for those times.