When we received the press release and promo copy for the new Titus Andronicus record, The Monitor it featured a stream of the song “Four Score & Seven.” Going out of their way to point out that the song is 8:39 seconds long, the stream was split into two parts. Not totally shocking from a band who’s first record, The Airing Of Grievances featured a some shamblers that hung around the 6 minute mark. The tune is as nakedly grand as it’s title, with sections demarcated by what sound like drum rolls done on an actual Civil War snare drum. Patrick Stickles words and delivery are chanty, ragged and earnest (the mostly good kind). In other words, it’s what you may have been expecting form the second TA record. And with the emphasis on it’s length in the press release, I imagined it to be the grand statement of said record. Imagine my surprise, when downloading the whole thing to find out it’s only the third longest song on The Monitor. And it looked to have a Civil War theme.
Without even listening to another track I had the sinking feeling that I was going to find this sophomore effort “overambitious.” Which made me feel like a total dick.
There isn’t an opinion I find more worthless than the critic’s evaluation, not of an artist’s actual work, but their worthiness in undertaking its scope. If one wonders what exactly a critic is allowed to judge (especially in pop music), know at least that whether an artist’s ambition of meaning/message/style outpace their perceived artistic station aint one of em. Loathe was I to have that filthy O word pop into my head.
But that’s why they play the games, and that’s why we listen to stuff 10 times around here. After living in it for a couple weeks The Monitor plays like a statement not of ambition, which by definition looks to address the future and achieve a certain end, but of the immediate present. The record is a portrait of Stickles’ voice, and of his worldview. It’s full of chants, witticisms and yes, some 8, 9 and 13 minute songs. It’s not perfect but any moments of rote sloganeering are outnumbered by its moments of affecting and effective bottle raising and fistpumping.
And man, some of these refrains stick with you. Please assume all lyrical excerpts from here on out end in an exclamation point. “Four Score And Seven” has “You won’t be laughing so hard” and the tried and true “It’s still us against them.” Pair these up with the emphatic “The enemy is everywhere” from lead single “A More Perfect Union”** (there goes Pat addressing the American People again), “You will always be a loser” from “No Future Part III: Escape From No Future” and The Monitor is a drawing of battle lines between that ubiquitous societal enemy and the kids he’s singing to. The ones described in “A Pot In Which To Piss” as “never a virgin, you were fucked from the start.” In that light allusions to bygone political rhetoric seem quaintly fitting, not overstated or overblown. Them is us, and Us vs. Us is what a civil war is all about.
Washed in guitar swells, screeching horns, E-Streety keys, ripping drums and barroom chorus backup singers, this style of earnestly (mama, there goes that word again) pissing off a soapbox is a proven formula for dredging up old battles, but it’s one that Stickles and company employ with a junkyard dog authenticity. There are kids out there that need and will love this record, made now. And I liked it, so I guess I’m not a dick. The Monitor may not be your favorite record but there is little doubt in listening to and getting to know it, that it surely will be someone’s. And that’s a pretty decent ambition to have.
**I am writing this review without any specific reference to what appears to be Stickles slamming Boston for most of this track. He mentioned living here in Somerville last time I saw them. Go easy on us, dude, we’re cranky.