Titus Andronicus: The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge)

New Jersey punks deliver hugely impressive magnum opus

Released Aug 28th, 2015 via Merge / By Liam Whear
Titus Andronicus: The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge) Punk rock is an intensely personal thing for a lot of people. It can be and is highly problematic, and no blame should be laid upon all the people that do turn away from it as a scene. But if you stick around, it can define your life in ways you can’t exactly write about.

Titus Andronicus are a band who recognise that that’s how it is for a lot of people and they know those feelings aren’t to be diminished. That’s why in 2010, frontman Patrick Stickles wrote, recorded and released with his band The Monitor, an album that related the Civil War to the painful anxieties he felt on a day-to-day basis. When you’re in a certain state, you can sometimes feel like the shit you’re going through is as big as that. Using the Battle of Hampton Roads as an allegory for self-destructive behaviour and home-town alienation is certainly something. The Monitor blew its struggles up to be bigger than everything. Respectively, for all its many merits, 2012’s Local Business slugged along, it knew it was struggling, but it didn’t quite know why anymore, it just went along, and left you slightly cold.

And now, in 2015, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a ninety-minute, five-act, 29-track rock opera where Stickles uses two characters (Our Hero and the Lookalike) to create a multi-faceted meta-narrative where he ultimately comes to terms with the manic depression he has been public about throughout his own band’s career. Here, the struggles are bare-faced and raw and sore. Instead of repeated shouts of ‘you will always be a loser’ and ‘your life is over’, there are repeated shouts of ‘I hate to be awake’, ‘I can control something inside of me’, ‘I’m going insane’. Instead of unabridged catharsis, there is voyeurism to internal discomfort and unrest.

Oftentimes they play their bar-band ramshackle-punk to the point where if they stop, they’ll die. This is the vitality of Titus Andronicus. They’ve always felt several steps above even the best indie punk bands, but here, they’ve come out with the record they had always threatened to make. The extreme ambition of The Most Lamentable Tragedy means they can stretch their sound any which way and still come out on top.

Despite some of the obscure references in the story (one line references the fact Stickles is a T-Mobile customer), despite all the meta-narratives involving hallucinogen flashbacks to Irish migration, people will use this album as a comfort blanket. Patrick Stickles knows this and that’s why he spends most of the time sounding like he’s bleeding from the mouth. If Johnny Rotten twisted his pronunciation so every lyric stung like barbed wire, Stickles just roars and screams until he pukes up all the passion in his lungs, and then keeps going. Not a single note is even attempted to be reached, but that’s not the point. What is the point is that this is pure primal scream therapy. While in earlier albums Stickles was screaming for everyone, here he is screaming through his characters, and therefore for himself. And that’s why it matters more for everyone, because he has a story to tell that people will understand. Because that’s the spirit of a good punk record. Solidarity.

Act I begins with Our Hero cold, alone, utterly bleak and depressed. Here, the instrumentation is lean, hard. But then he wakes up on ‘The Magic Morning’, Act II being giddy, frantic, abound with glockenspiels and glorious harmonies that are as affirming as they are slightly discomforting and alienating. He meets his doppelganger, the Lookalike, with whom he finds new meaning, as the Lookalike tells him how he should be living for the “fire”, scolding “them” who turned him “into a reverent fool”. Going into a drug-induced flashback, Our Hero has a vision of his Irish ancestor immigrating to America. That becomes an allegory for him discarding his old depressed self, with Act III having Our Hero wanting to seize it all, learning to accept himself through the eyes of the Lookalike, and wanting to find someone to share his ‘Fatal Flaw’ with.

In Act 4, the Irish ancestor finds his love interest just as Our Hero does, talking to her just as the Lookalike did, wanting them to seize the world, seize the infinite possibilities. But, as New Year strikes, he loses it, ‘going insane’, losing his ability to speak, a major chord into a horrible minor chord. He can’t drag her down with her, he can’t burden his troubles on her. He has to live himself. And in Act 5, he find that out the hard way, fighting this metaphorical monster that’s been plaguing him all this time. He finds it out to be the Lookalike, this is who has been hurting him all along. His empowerment is disappearing, the drums and the guitars are no more, and in the last song, ‘Stable Boy’, with nothing but a tape recorder and a chord organ, Our Hero is at his most vocal, and through the complete lack of empowerment he now has, he’s able to fully articulate himself for the most time. He’s found himself. He’s how he’s supposed to be.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is the spiritual successor to the likes of American Idiot, The Black Parade, the punk operas that helped their respective generations find themselves through the meanings of power chords and dramatised stories about misfits and outcasts learning to accept who they are amongst the shit. And it helps through the rocking songs, taking the listener throughout all of the band’s career, through all their tributes to The Hold Steady, The Pogues, The Replacements and Springsteen. ‘Fired Up’ is an utterly beautiful, yearning song with affirming choruses, passionate vocals, glockenspiel and tributes to the likes of Joan Of Arc, those who were purged in the fires for their rebellion. ‘Dimed Out’ and ‘I’m Going Insane’ absolutely froth at the mouth for diametrically opposed reasons, ‘More Perfect Union’ and ‘(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID’ are heavy, long, swamp-punk songs that know when to lean back, and when to kick in. There’s little here aesthetically that will surprise any long-term fans of their boundless, rough, piss-and-vinegar punk fucking rock, but if it ain’t broke.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is indeed exhausting, because it has to be. It is an exhausting story, documenting what would have been an exhausting time. But that’s why it comes across as so rewarding, as Our Hero in ‘Stable Boy’ promises to not “sleep forever”, as Patrick Stickles himself promises to not “sleep forever”. You might not immediately feel it, but the best, most life-affirming, life-saving punk rock becomes a part of you without you fully knowing it. Spend time with this record, read up more on the story and follow the lyrics and you’ll see what I mean.