By David M. Goldstein | 12 March 2010
Give Titus Andronicus this: they don’t fuck around when it comes to first impressions. Heavily bearded frontman Patrick Stickles is likely all too aware of the fact that the kids (and this critic) have monumentally low attention spans these days, completely willing to write off an album if it doesn’t grab their attention within the first 90 seconds of the first song. As such, Stickles properly kicks off his band’s second album with “A More Perfect Union,” a C Major rush similar to the National’s “Abel,” in which he hoarsely references such East Coast staples as the Garden State Parkway, the Fung-Wah Bus, and various highways strung between New Jersey and Boston. It’s the most fist-pumpingly invigorating lead-off track from a band of Springsteen acolytes since the Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations,” and it’s not for nothing that Craig Finn is given a clever guest turn reciting Walt Whitman (more on that to come) later in the record; if ever there were two bands utterly destined to co-headline the same stage, it’d be Titus Andronicus and the Hold Steady.
And the Stickles turns the tables, transforming immediacy into a seductive move to trap the listener for the long haul. Over the course of “Union”’s seven minutes, Titus Andronicus make like the Pogues with a Born to Run (1977) fixation, name-dropping both Billy Bragg and indy-league baseball team the Newark Bears in the service of a Jersey to Boston (actually, Somerville—can we assume Stickles is a Tufts grad?) narrative that crops up repeatedly over the course of The Monitor. The song’s mid-section even contains catchy “whoa, whoa, whoas” clearly indebted to the Misfits, and if you’ve seen Titus Andronicus cover “Where Eagles Dare,” you’d know they wear their Jersey punk roots with pride.
The now five members of Titus Andronicus are all in their early 20s and predominantly hail from the not-so-mean streets of Glen Rock, New Jersey, a bucolic Bergen County enclave that probably afforded Stickles more than enough high school hours to familiarize himself with Catcher in the Rye. They’re also the most shamelessly erudite punks this side of Bad Religion; maybe at first glance a bit much for their own good. They’re named after a willfully obscure Shakespeare play, the best song on their first record was called “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’,” and The Monitor does indeed take its name from the ironclad Union ship that famously tussled with the Confederate Merrimack at the Battle of Hampton Roads (also the title of the album’s closing track). And: the entire album is said to be influenced by the Civil War, littered, as it’s wont, with spoken word excerpts from Abraham Lincoln speeches and Walt Whitman poems. Cue eye roll.
But overarching ambition is only problematic if you’re incapable of selling it, and as becomes more than evident over the course of an hour, Patrick Sickles and co. readily deliver the goods. The songs are still wordy as hell, but they’ve cleared up the tin-can production values of their debut, 2008’s The Airing of Grievances (yeah, remember how it was called that?), and now traffic in driving anthems punctuated by sea-shanty choruses and certifiably epic crescendos that do indeed evoke slow-motion re-enactments of Civil War battles on the History Channel. (Talking point: which is longer, a Ken Burns documentary or this album?) Rallying shouts of “The enemy is EVERYWHERE!” and “IT’S STILL US AGAINST THEM!” seem childish transcribed, but completely make sense in the context of The Monitor‘s surging bombast, especially when accompanied by E Street-style piano rolls and military snare drumming. And as has been repeatedly mentioned with regards to this band, there’s no getting around the fact that Patrick Stickles’s vocals do sound a lot like Conor Oberst’s, and the two share a love for self-flagellation in their pen. But Titus Andronicus is an infinitely more fun outfit than the comparatively morose Bright Eyes, a drink-and-sing-along party band that just happens to have a fascination with American History and a blatant Springsteen jones. So…like the Holy Steady, only Titus’s history reaches for the roots.
It’s to Titus Andronicus’s credit that it’s impossible to listen to The Monitor without wondering how it’s going to sound onstage. The bagpipe solo at the climax of the sixteen minute denouement “The Battle of Hampton Roads” feels earned, and even the purposely slower, world-weary numbers like “A Pot in Which to Piss” and “To Old Friends and New” remain compelling throughout their extended run times. The Monitor is ridiculously strident and frequently overblown, but somehow never slips into self-parody, which may only be true because it’s obvious these guys are having a total blast indulging this hard. It’s easily the most enjoyable rock record I’ve heard so far this year.