Under Review: Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

At what point in your career do you decide to pen a concept album?  For Patrick Stickles, leader of New Jersey punkers Titus Andronicus, now’s a good time.  His band’s new second album, The Monitor, might carry some of the same messages about the emotional fragility of people, but this time there’s a healthy dose of American history to go along with it.  Not content to make another album about his feelings (although that worked pretty well on Titus’ 2008 debut, The Airing Of Grievances), Stickles incorporates quotes from and references to the Civil War throughout The Monitor, itself named for the legendary battleship.  You would imagine an undertaking such as an ode to the Civil War requiring a great deal of proficiency, both musical and lyrical, and The Monitor brings it.  Boy oh boy, does it bring it.  As on its predecessor, the songs on The Monitor clock in at an average 6 ½ minutes, but these aren’t aimless jams we’re dealing with, but intricate movements and rousing climaxes.  The record is definitely meant to be taken as an exhausting whole, as a handful of themes and phrases recur throughout the album.  Opener “A More Perfect Union” not only features allusions to other songs (such as “A New England” and “Born To Run”), but enough references to the Garden State to make Brother Sufjan blush.  All of the densely-packed lyrics are set to a driving backbeat that’s just as rich with melodic guitar lines and group backing vocals.  In that group are members of a slew of other bands, including Wye Oak, Deer Tick, The Felice Brothers and The Hold Steady.  Those guests also contribute some spoken word interludes featuring the words of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davies.

Refrains of “the enemy is everywhere” appear every now and again, and form the main message of The Monitor.  The true skill is how one deals with such a ubiquitous adversary, or even if one recognizes it in the first place.  For Stickles, confronting the enemy with reality (“Richard II”) or surrendering to it (“Four Score And Seven”) are equally sufficient options. Titus Andronicus do a lot of lamenting on The Monitor (“Theme From ‘Cheers’” features the toast, “Here’s to the home team, kiss the good times goodbye”), but it’s not really a sad album.  As the words and thoughts whiz by, it seems as though Stickles is bombarding you with information and ideas in hopes that something sticks.  Indeed, The Monitor is a heady record, but not in the same way some art school dropouts make heady records.  The Monitor is an album that less about the feelings of one person and the war of a people than it is the feelings of a lot of people and the personal wars we constantly engage in to keep those feelings stable.  As far as lyrical maturity goes, Stickles is writing far beyond his years, emulating both the overworked weariness of Shane McGowan and the stumbling poignancy of Paul Westerberg.  Though it might be a bit too psychologically wringing for someone just looking to pogo for an hour or so, The Monitor is a tremendously impressive piece of modern folk-rock.

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~ by E. on March 31, 2010.

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