If you’ve had an ear to the ground over the last few weeks, you may have detected a bit of a buzz building about the new Titus Andronicus record. Their excellent debut The Airing of Grievances was celebrated, then in some quarters, mindlessly knocked, for being a bit too much like other hyped “lo-fi” bands (Vivian Girls etc). Apparently, their debut was lo-fi out of necessity rather than choice, and critics who are still sat up on a high horse should just get off; there’s no doubt that Titus Andronicus have knocked the ball right out of the park with their latest.
The Monitor is a sprawling concept album, named after the U.S.S Monitor and released on the 148th anniversary of the battle between said ship and its confederate counterpart, the C.S.S Virginia. It tells the (present day) story of a young man who swaps New Jersey for Boston, where things don’t quite work out as planned. Ultimately he leaves, tail between his legs, ready to continue drinking and smoking to excess, because he thinks they’ve had just about enough of him there. Throughout, ghosts of the American Civil War crash the party, picking up military drums and bagpipes. Songs on the album average at least seven minutes, there are frequent spoken word interludes lifted from dusty, crackling tapes and Titus Andronicus are asking big questions—namely, whether the Civil War was won, lost, or even completed, and if humans are accountable for our own miseries. As lead singer Patrick Stickles has asked: what else should they be singing about? Girls?
Well, perhaps you’ve stopped reading by now because it’s all too clever by half. If so, your loss, because on this evidence Titus Andronicus might be the most exciting indie-rock band around. Part of the album’s success is the fact that it meets its critics head on—Bruce Springsteen is referenced in the first two minutes, as if to get that one out of the way, and the unapologetic awareness of their own influences means it’s easier to get to grips with Titus Andronicus’ terrific songwriting on its own terms. Often, three or more distinct sections make up one deceptively shambolic song and even the longest feel as if they are crammed full of ideas. The opening track, for example, rips out of the blocks at a blistering pace before slipping into what sounds like a 150-year-old punk-rock broadcast, then back again. It’s book-ended by two scratchy speeches.
The album reaches its peak in the middle, with three songs that add up to much more than the sum of their parts. The last of these,“Theme from Cheers” (which isn’t concerned with responsible drinking) slips through enough changes to make you feel as if the band are dragging you on a bleary bar-room crawl through some hopeless American town. The other two are epic Civil War tracks with superb, often bitterly funny lyrics, which Stickles delivers like a man who has gone way over the edge, then nailed a bottle of whiskey. Throughout, he’s the brilliant beating heart of the band, ferocious but endearing—although I wonder quite how long he’ll be able to keep up such intensity given the band’s punishing touring schedule.
So, in a parallel world I can imagine The Monitor being a huge hit, one that in particular, has the scope to resonate even with boring rock magazines who regularly feature artists like Bob Dylan on their boring front covers. Titus Andronicus are certainly steeped in classic rock and punk; I can hear Exile on Main Street, Springsteen, the Pogues, and Minor Threat. They’re a furious version of The Band, a punk-rock group straight out of Deadwood. And yet, beyond all that, they come off as absolutely unique—but whether The Monitor gets the attention it deserves remains to be seen.