Titus Andronicus’ newest is a most laudable tragedy

Titus Andronicus’ newest album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, is a 29-song, 93-minute behemoth. As most double-albums of this scope are wont to be, it is a rock opera.  It tells the story of a man who meets his exact double, and discovers his double is of the opposite disposition. Also, for the most part, it’s a damn fine album.

As with most rock operas, I’m not entirely sure it’s imperative to fully grasp the machinations of the plot to enjoy the album, but I’m definitely eager to see the sometimes murky plot cohesively diagrammed.

A more succinct, detailed summary–along with a ton of insight into the circumstances of what could be one of the last decade’s best rock group’s swan song — can be found in this Grantland piece.

The moribund doppelgänger plot is naturally a way for Titus Andronicus’,principal singer/songwriter, Patrick Stickles, to explore the opposing highs and lows of his depression.The dichotomous nature of the album is further reinforced by the presence of both typical Titus Andronicus guitar-anthem-shout-along songs and more ornate arrangements.

In interviews, Stickles has compared the more baroque tracks to Lou Reed’s Berlin and the straightforward howlers to Zen Arcade.

However, instead of Hüsker Dü or Lour Reed, this album’s kindred spirit is really Brian Wilson, because as are eggs to Danny DeVito, mania v. depression is just The Most Laudable Tragedy’s jumping off point. Titus Andronicus’ latest offering is a sprawling, spiraling effort, which draws elements from every one of the band’s past releases to create something close to punk rock’s SMiLE.

Instead of Wilson’s muses, beaches, morality, love, America and the passage of time, Stickles draws from New Jersey, Shakespeare, “Seinfeld”, Terrordomes and eating disorders. Also, whereas Wilson’s grapples with wellness were whispers that gradually became more evident, Stickles places his mental health in the forefront of the songs, which include a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “I Had Lost My Mind”.

Interestingly, SMiLE and The Most Lamentable Tragedy both repurpose standards–“You Are MY Sunshine” and “Auld Lang Syne” respectively– in interesting ways.

Even with cover songs and standards in the mix, this album is still definitively a Titus Andronicus album. I predict much will be made about the growth and audacity on display, but, for me, this album seems like a natural progression.

While it may seem odd for what is ostensibly a punk rock band from New Jersey to record a grandiose, concept album, it’s important to remember this is a band named after a Shakespearean play, and their debut album contained an almost 6-minute suite called “Arms Against Atrophy”. Plus, the previous two Titus Andronicus albums have been concept albums of sorts.

The strings and brass which punch up a few songs are definitely a change of pace, but considering they’re sometimes backing a man absolutely caterwauling in utter despondency, it’s not a particularly jarring change of pace.

While I have nothing but praise for the execution and ambition, which created The Most Lamentable Tragedy, it’s tough for me to pinpoint exactly how strongly I should endorse this record. It’s sheer size is almost an obnoxious novelty.

There are certainly a multitude of catchy songs, which find triumph in the universal nature of humanity’s dark feelings and dread, which is always a plus, but when I reach Track 14’s intermission, the 78 seconds of silence are appreciated. Titus Andronicus’ brand of music is intense and emotionally draining.

While Titus Andronicus’ music is almost always a joy to hear, 93 minutes might be too much of a good thing. Plus, with an overarching plot and a multitude of heartfelt themes The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a ton to take in.

Still, in smaller doses, this album is much more manageable. I probably can’t unequivocally recommend it to everyone, but ultimately, I suppose The Most Lamentable Tragedy is good album aiming for great things.

For anyone, who has been following Titus Andronicus for a while, or to anyone who is interested in ambitious projects for the sake of shaking the status quo, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is definitely required listening.

A tough concept to grasp

There are few traditions in music as openly derided as the concept album.

They have a reputation for being too long, too verbose, grandstanding too much and sacrificing song quality to serve an album’s theme. These perceptions are considered doubly true when the concept album in question is a double album or rock opera.

Even legendary efforts such as The Who’s “Tommy”and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” are usually used as shorthand for overstuffed bombast or to exemplify empty calories music.

However, there are exceptions to the rule. This is a short list of some good, great and all-time classic concept albums.

These are concept albums for people who normally hate concept albums.

1. The Beatles- “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

A psychedelic, classic rock album is typically not the direction one should look when searching for a lean listen, but “Sgt. Pepper’s” clocks in at just under 40 minutes. The album is filled with classic songs, poppy hooks and is one of the most exalted albums in the oeuvre of the greatest band ever. Only the Beatles could close an album with a song featuring an orchestra and dog whistle without feeling even slightly excessive.

2. Cloud Nothings- “Attack on Memory”

Cloud Nothings started as a catchy, lofi solo project by Dylan Baldi, but on “Attack on Memory” they had matured into a full-fledged band. As the title suggests this album set out to attach previous conceptions of what the Cloud Nothings were. Also, songs tend to be thematically focused on battling with the past. This theme encapsulates everything from overcoming lingering memories of failed relationships to accepting failure to realize past goals. Sludgy guitars and Albini-produced dry drums let the sound quality match the quality of the song writing. “Attack on Memory” is a hook-laden, angry, wonderful concept album,

3. Fucked Up- “David Comes to Life”

With blaring guitars, multiple characters and female guest vocals there is no mistaking this for anything than a Rock Opera.

However, “David Comes to Life” is to Rock Operas what Thomas Pynchon is to novelists. There are multiple unreliable narrators, the fourth wall is shattered and substantial stylistic shifts. Without a guide it is almost impossible to actually follow the plot.

Also, the topics of death, love, loss pessimism and faith are dealt with in a mature measured way. This is particularly surprising for a band called Fucked Up.

4. Candy Claws- “Ceres and Calypso in Deep Time”

This albums is the chronicle the adventures of an adolescent girl and her prehistoric seal-like companion through time. It is entirely impossible to deduce this from listening to the album. This dream-pop album is so reverb intensive the vocals are barely present over the shimmering buzz. Just kick back and enjoy the pretty grooves.

5.   Titus Andronicus- “The Monitor”

This is a gruff, thoughtful punk album with a novel premise. “The Monitor” takes its name from a Civil War era submarine, and it is a breakup album that parallels a relationship’s end with the war between the states. The album is funny, painful and honest. Its references range from Shakespreare to the Gettysburg Address to “The Dark Knight” to Bruce Springsteen. Plenty of the songs have a running time in excess of five minutes, but they never wear out their welcome.

6. The White Stripes- “Elephant” 

According to Jack White this album is dedicated to the death of the sweetheart. This theme is far from heavy handed, but it does provide a thread through all of its songs. I’ve extolled this album’s virtues many times, but I can never recommend it enough.

7. Jay Z- “American Gangster” 

This is definitely Jay Z’s best post-“Black Album” work. It loosely mirrors the Denzel Washington movie of the same name, but instead of real-life gangster Frank Lucas it focuses primarily on Jay Z’s own meteoric rise. It features some of latter day Jay Z’s hungriest rapping and slick production. The songs even hold up when performed live.