If I initially had any trouble figuring out exactly what to make of The Airing of Grievances, the 2008 debut by New Jersey blogosphere faves Titus Andronicus, it was only because the experience of listening to the record was so purely and deliriously pleasurable that it led me to distrust my own opinion of it a little. Arriving via a wave of hype in the digital sphere nearly a full year before getting a physical release in early 2009 (a potent example of underdog ambition having finally outpaced the creaky machinations of an increasingly lumbering industry), the album was most confusing for the number of contradictions it seemed to embrace. A band so exhibitionist in their literary tendencies to name themselves after Shakespeare’s earliest and bloodiest tragedy should not, for example, drop a Seinfeld reference as the title of their first album. Likewise, a band that bravely flaunts their pretentions with song titles like “Albert Camus” or “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’” should probably not populate said titles with the kind of angst-y, adolescent lyrical diatribes that lead yelper Patrick Stickles filled the album with, like the frantically scrawled journal pages of a moody high school kid who spends a little too much time alone in his bedroom.
Still, The Airing of Grievances’ most unique clash resided in the music itself, a mad collision of punk’s spit-and-bile fury and enthusiastic walls of sound that netted the New Jersey natives many an inevitable Springsteen/E Street Band comparison. It is this particularly imposing analogy that the band seems to have taken especially to heart when crafting their follow-up, opening and closing The Monitor with a pair of songs that make unsubtle reference to New Jersey’s favorite son, like they are defiantly staring down the elephant in the room. “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die,” Stickles bellows at the front of the album on “A More Perfect Union”, a mixture of classic punk’s kill-your-idols ethos and genuine, reverential affection. At the other end of the record, “The Battle of Hampton Roads” finds Stickles admitting, in an extended fit of withering introspection, “I’ve destroyed everything that wouldn’t make me more like Bruce Springsteen.” Such sentiments are indicative of a lot of what is so charming about Titus Andronicus, their ability to cut through the polite veneers of artistry, expectations and the unspoken detachment between artist and critic/audience with heavy doses of irreverence and humor.
These moments are also particularly illustrative of the generally precarious position in which the band now finds itself. With the indie-rock blogosphere now every bit as fickle and limited in their attention spans as the teen-pop audience of a decade ago (Voxtrot, we hardly knew ye), The Monitor just might represent the band’s first real step towards either breakout acclaim or impending obsolescence. Credit these guys, then, for continuing to think big and exuding a confidence that cuts straight through the kind of hesitation or compromise that would ground many other bands in their current spot. The Monitor follows the lead that some of their more fearlessly ambitious peers took for their respective sophomore releases. Namely, in having established their own unique sound and achieving some measure of notoriety (however moderate, in this particular band’s case) with it, the band now sets out to make The Great American Rock Album.
It’s a characteristically bold move from these guys, though not one that serves as a necessary guarantee of quality, given that the recent history of such things has run the gamut from Neon Bible (woo hoo!) to Sam’s Town (d’oh!). Titus Andronicus appear to similarly intend The Monitor to be their masterpiece. Like any potential masterpiece that has ever been worth a damn, it is constructed with all the makings of a disaster. Running a full 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, despite only containing one extra track (10 to Airing’s nine), The Monitor is epic in size, sound and scope. A loose concept album nominally based around the American Civil War as a portentous metaphor for the country’s current state of divisive anger and turmoil, The Monitor is loaded with broad, sweeping proclamations on the state of humanity, the country, history (“there is no race more human, no one throws it away like they do”). Since the very concept of this particular concept album is an especially abstract one, there is actually very little tying the text together as a distinct narrative. More unifying, overall, than any of the album’s lyrics are the various historic speeches quoted throughout; passages from the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman read, in a nice touch, by visiting guest stars like the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Vivian Girls’ Cassie Ramone, recorded as if uncovered from a dusty vinyl archive.
Yet, for all of its attempted topical weight, The Monitor is typically at its strongest, lyrically, when Stickles indulges in the very autobiographical introspection that made The Airing of Grievances, for all of that album’s epic sprawl, such a strikingly intimate record. If what has changed since then is that Stickles has moved from being a young upstart to the leader of a successful rock band, he nevertheless continues to place himself under a particularly harsh, unflattering microscope: “And I know I won’t do much good getting drunk and sad and singing,” he sings with typical self-deprecating scorn on “A Pot in Which to Piss”, “but I’m at the end of my rope and I feel like swinging.” If such lines suggest a wildly premature weariness with Stickles’ newfound status (elsewhere on the same song: “you ain’t never been no virgin, kid, you were fucked from the start”), this too is shot through with its singer’s lacerating wit, constantly in place to tip off the listener to not approach lyrics as hilariously and melodramatically grotesque as “I am covered in urine and excrement but I’m alive” (from “Four Score and Seven”) with a completely straight face.
The Monitor is not as successful when the band tries too hard to impose the record’s conceptual framework upon the songs. This has less to do with the lofty themes than with how thuddingly obvious the band can become when trying too hard to make their point. Oft-repeated lyrical refrains like “the enemy is everywhere” and “its still us against them” are delivered with an anthemic zeal that highlights one of the band’s greatest strengths, their rousing, infectious energy. But these moments come dangerously close to missing the point of what makes their music so thrillingly unique. By indulging in simplistic sloganeering where the band could once turn any lyrical phrase, no matter how convoluted, personal or profane, into a stadium-sized chant, such moments feel like little more than the kind of empty bluster that The Airing of Grievances completely avoided. Elsewhere, when “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” descends into an extended group shout-along of “you will always be a loser”, it finds Stickles suddenly indulging in exactly the kind of grunge-era cliché that he spends a lot of time subversively toying around with elsewhere.
Even when The Monitor falls flat lyrically, though, the band continues to make remarkably powerful and distinct rock music. A dramatically increased budget, one assumes, frees the band from the lo-fi trappings of their debut, and for once this is the case of a ramshackle band taking on greater production values without sounding suddenly and awkwardly glossy as a result. This newfound sonic clarity instead helps the band scale further heights with their music. Sounds like the jaunty saloon-style piano that runs through “…And Ever” and the back half of “A Pot in Which to Piss”, or even the harsh strum of the acoustic guitar that drives the 14-minute “The Battle of Hampton Roads” to its eventual, explosive climax are now afforded a tangible, up-front texture, where before they would have been fighting their way through the static. Even when the band is forcing the music into uncertain directions, The Monitor nevertheless remains one of the very best sounding records that you will hear all year.
Neither a home run, then, nor the dreaded sophomore slump, The Monitor is, it is probably more fair to say, the album that finds the band maturing beyond the precocious triumph of their debut by first having to pass through their awkward, gangly adolescent phase. It is transitional in the sense that it finds Titus Andronicus with greater freedom and more tools at their disposal, but still in the position of figuring out what to do with them. I just hope that they are afforded enough longevity that we, and they, get to find out.