#60: Slaves – Acts Of Fear And Love
New Jersey punk rockers Titus Andronicus first appeared fully formed, as a balls-out whisper-to-a-scream theatrical unit on The Airing Of Grievances. For me it was love from the first moments. They were a band that was more than willing to add off-kilter bits to their songs – quotes from Shakespeare, references to Camus, snatches of Springsteen, doo wop, and late-70s guitar-worship heroics. It was as though Conor Oberst had taken up fronting Fucked Up in order to bring it out onto a stage and perform, and their follow-up, The Monitor, doubled down on this. The Monitor was a full-blown epic, taking the American Civil War and comparing it to New Jersey circa 2010. It’s an album of widescreen guitar fireworks, teetering back and forth between shaky whiskey-soaked balladry and full-out punk firebreathing. It’s easily one of the five best albums of this middle-aged decade, which makes the sharply reduced scale of 2012’s Local Business all the stranger. Frontman Patrick Stickles seemed to dial back his ambition in favour of being more accessible, or maybe just in favour of being able to play the songs correctly live. Either way it was a misstep for a band whose strengths lie in being utterly ridiculous with regards to their songs and their whole albums. It is without (much) hyperbole to say that when the band announced that it would be recording a new album, it was tacitly suggested by nearly everyone that it would be their make-or-break moment. They needed something big and ambitious to cement their legend.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy delivers on this.
29 songs over an hour and a half. A five-act rock opera about Our Hero (a stand-in for Stickles) and his struggles with manic depression. Seventies bar stomping, modern punk fury, ballads, intermissions, Zeppelin-esque nine-minute riff mining, a Pogues cover, “Auld Lang Syne”…there is literally something for everyone in the sprawled-out fences that mark out the album’s territory. “Dimed Out” leads the charge as the standard-bearer of the punk heroics that marked the band out as one to watch in 2008, with “Look Alive” and “Lookalike” rushing headalong with it. The “No Future” saga ends with parts IV and V; IV kicks the door open on the album with the screamed slogan “I hate to be awake”, while V sets up the ending of the album before the slow, falling-apart ballad “Stable Boy”. Tracks like “Mr. E. Mann”, “Fired Up”, “Funny Feeling” and “Fatal Flaw” feel like stretched out takes on the cleaner, poppier sound of Local Business. “More Perfect Union” and “(S)HE SAID/(S)HE SAID” set out on a different direction entirely, mining slow changes and moods over the course of nearly ten minutes each. 2012’s “My Eating Disorder” could be considered a precursor to these sorts of songs, although both are more complicated and atmospheric than that song. What’s most surprising, however, is Stickles’ melodies. He’s always been more of a screamer than a singer, but “Lonely Boy”, “I Lost My Mind (+@)”, “Come On, Siobhan”, and the closer “Stable Boy” all speak to his strengths as a sort of corrosive pop vocalist, like Kurt Cobain with a better sense of theatrics and a musical vocabulary that extends beyond ripping off Black Flag and Killing Joke.
There’s a desperation to the band that plays well to its audience. After all, unless you’re settled into a career and are making good money, the future projected out from 2015 is starting to look a little desperate all on it’s own. The Sex Pistols screamed about “no future” but Patrick Stickles has taken up that line as a mantra, alternately raging against the brick wall of nothing that awaits and tiredly accepting it. It’s a back-and-forth that seems all too familiar to those trying to balance part-time work with rising costs and seeing no appreciable relief coming in the future. Stickles’ take on his state of being is grim: While “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” begins the album screaming about how he hates to be awake, and “No Future Part V: Endless Dreaming” closes the saga by whispering that if hates to be awake, he should just end it all and sleep forever. Fittingly, the final track on the album, “A Moral”, is silent. The Most Lamentable Tragedy takes the bands nihilism to its logical conclusion and it’s hard to imagine where they could go from here. They’ve spent their past doing everything within the range of ragged-edged punk rock, and on this album they bring it all together into one big blowout. Afterwards, there’s something akin to a hangover: a lost feeling, confused ideas about what to do next, and the slightly more positive generalization to Stickles’ main theme: if you hate to do something, why are you still doing it? It’s a question you can apply to so many aspects of your life, even when Stickles is applying it personally to life itself.