After ten thousand years, it’s still us against them
....and they're winning
The Monitor (2010) ****1/2
I've long taken the position that ambition does not necessarily equal achievement, but exceptions exist to be made: Patrick Stickles and the crew (over two dozen musicians listed in the credits, of which only the rhythm section is carried over from the debut) by no means achieve their outsized ambitions, yet that is only because their grasp is so absurdly huge. A 10 song, hour long concept album that employs the American Civil War as a metaphor for modern angst and frustrations, it's an intense, deeply exhausting listen, and as such difficult to soak in on first (or fifth) listen. With the exception of the twin fragments "Titus Andronicus Forever," and "...And Ever," which conceptually help tie together the first and second half of the album (they're the same song, more or less - the first take straight bruising punk, the second attempt looser barroom anarchy complete with honky-tonk piano; each last about a couple of minutes), the song lengths break down thusly: four 7 to 8 1/2 minute epics, three relatively short'n'snappy 5 minute mini-epics, and one 14 minute epic epic. Length only accounts for part of the exhaustion; couple that with the band's cacophonous overdrive and Stickles' impassioned (to the point of hectoring) vocals and lyrics that scream intense self-importance concerning his own self-loathing angst and the breakdown of contemporary American society (not necessarily in that order of importance) - well, this is one great album that you'll be glad to switch off and slump in your chair after it's finished firing its final volleys, as you wipe your grit-strained brow from the sonic and emotional assault. (In all fairness, Stickle's poor grasp of memorable melodicism has a lot to blame for that feeling, as well.) The weighty bits of quoted monologues linking the tracks together (Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln - who knows what other American icons) only show that Stickles is eager to show off that he's the son of a U.S. History high school teacher (well, so am I, so I can relate to his pretentiousness).
And it is a great album, not merely because it so desperately strains to be a Great Album (though that helps immensely). A formerly good but unexceptional indie rock band has emerged from the cocoon as a great band - much better production and performances all around, and the musical scope has transcended generic indie-punk to encompass lengthy guitar heroics, barroom boogie, piano balladry, he/she duets, drunken C&W (as filtered through the early Pogues), and bagpipe solos (yes - the last hard rock band to pull that stunt was AC/DC). It's not nearly as varied as that laundry list might lead you to except, but this sprawling double album (at over an hour, it's best to think of it that way) rarely falls into the monotony trap, in large part due to a trick pulled on several tracks: start off slow and Tom Waits-ish at the piano or strummy guitar, carry on in that gin-soaked vein for a dozen or so verses, as the music either slowly builds up to or jarringly lurches into the poundingly anthemic hard rock section. And if some of the sections are weak (the slow ones do underline Strickles' stunted melodic sense) - it's a sprawling double LP, that comes with the territory.
Each individual track may deserve an analysis equal to its bloated length, but in the interest of non-bloviation I'll limit myself to selected highlights (with my trusty yellow highlighter). "A More Perfect Union," militaristically calls the album to arms (shades of the Skids!) with a rouse-the-troops guitar solo that's as viscerally thrilling as the opening riff of "Bastards of Young" (the Replacements, youngsters). "No Future Part III: No Escape," starts off as an almost parody of stereotypically wimpy indie rock, until the drummer kicks it into second gear. Likewise, Strickles initially softly sings, "You will always be a loser," in the whimpering voice of a deservedly pathetic whiner, but by the end of the song has turned that same refrain into a defiant, inclusive, almost celebratory anthem. "Theme From 'Cheers'," is close to what you'd expect - a lament/celebration of the committed, lifelong drinking man's lot, sung with resigned bitterness and drunken gusto. And damn does it make me thirsty. Which is the highest compliment you can pay to a drinking song. We await until the end for the album's tour de force, the 14 minute, "The Battle of Hampton Roads," which only in the most superficial sense deals with the first battle of ironclads in naval history. By the end of the first verse Stickles has dispatched the Monitor and the Merrimack, and is ready to address more contemporary social grievances, both solipsistic and of wider societal import - "Is there a girl at this college who hasn't been raped? / Is there a boy in this town that's not exploding with hate?" - ranting full on for 7 1/2 minutes until he collapses melodically into the "please don't ever leave," coda, after which at approximately 9:15 in we're treated to the inevitable bagpipe solo, and the bagpipes & Celtic-spiked electric guitar carry us on out.
And so we conclude the first genuine rock masterpiece of the second decade of the 21st century (not that I'm all that hip with what kids dig today). That Titus Andronicus currently boast one of the most rabid fan followings in the country is understandable, even before you consider their live rep (catch'em while they're still young and before they've fossilized into 'legendary'). I wouldn't agree with some of the more rabid youngsters who claim that this is their favorite album of all-time (trawl RYM), given that I've heard 300 greater albums than this - but I've got some extensive knowledge of rock history. Kids for whom all of this is fresh - I'm not going to disagree with them. Which is an admission I would never begrudge any other hard rock band I've heard in the past decade - not the White Stripes, not the Black Keys, not even QOTSA. Titus are playing rock'n'roll with heart-on-sleeve emotion, passionate sincerity, and not a trace of irony - which you can't say about any of those other bands, and is an exceedingly rare commodity among Millenials. They aren't playing with a knowing wink in their eye, and they ain't twee & precious, neither. And that makes all the difference.
The first single was a 3 1/2 minute edit of a 7 minute song: