Titus Andronicus is a band that is unabashedly New Jersey in all the best ways. They’ve got the contained-to-bursting fury of basement shows and the grandiose sound and lyrical aspirations of Springsteen. Their last album, The Monitor, was the band’s punk version of The River, a huge outpouring of creativity, something both much larger in scope and somehow more refined than its predecessor, The Airing of Grievances. In two albums, we also learned that, under all the rock and roll muck of their songs, the band wasn’t afraid to show off some theatrics. They are named after a particularly gristly Shakespeare play, after all, and The Monitor was a 65-minute concept record in which a break-up is transmogrified into (or conflated with) a narrative about the Civil War.
So, yeah, they don’t mind tossing around big ideas, but they always come back to the hook, the thumping rock pulse, the clever line, the anthemic chorus. Titus Andronicus has a theatrical streak that works because it never drifts from the pure pleasures and volatile energy of rock music.
The band’s new album, Local Business, tries to move away from the larger narratives of The Monitor towards something more contained. It’s best parts retains the band’s taut energy, but aside from lacking the interstitial speeches of its predecessor, the band hasn’t really pared back much here. These 10 songs cover about 50 minutes, with two songs going over the eight-minute mark and half of them cracking five minutes. It’s also a collection that continues themes from the other albums. There’s plenty of isolation, of personal freedom versus machinations that contain that freedom, of existential crises. It doesn’t repeat, necessarily, and actually argues for Titus Andronicus’s records not as separate parts but more as connected chapters in the band’s story.
If that overall story seems too big to think about now, that’s because the parts themselves are pretty huge. Opener “Ecce Homo” starts with Patrick Stickles shouting “Okay, I think by now we’ve established everything is inherently worthless.” That’s a hell of a starting point for the record, a sort of rock-bottom that feels impossible to dig up and out of. But Stickles and company delve into the confusion of such a perception, where “he forgets if he felt oppressed or depressed or which one came first.” It’s not a new idea, necessarily, the put-upon, bored hero questioning if it all means anything, if there was a time where he could have said something, done something to change it. But if it feels vague, it’s still sold with a convincing anger by Stickles and, more importantly, it connects to the songs that follow. We see that vicious cycle in the motorists annoyed at a fatal car crash in “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus.” Stickles sings about people “grit[ting] their teeth, hating that which comes between them and their coffee” and we recognize it both because it’s a sad truth and, perhaps, it’s a feeling we recognize in others and ourselves.
The album seems to focus quite a bit on control. Sometimes, it’s the lack of control we have on the outside world—as in the traffic mentioned above—and sometimes it’s bodily control. The body gets mentioned a lot, and is the most local of businesses the record focuses on. “My Eating Disorder” is more about chemistry than psychology, about the cycle from “pharmacist to Marlboro Man back to pharmacist again.” It’s an obsessive desire for control, a look at the river of stuff we pump into our bodies to make them behave, and —most importantly—an affecting look at Stickles’s own struggle with Selective Eating Disorder. “In a Small Body” focuses more on the effects to our physical selves that come with time, we “watch the acid eat away the enamel.” “It’s my body and me,” Stickles sings, and that separation, that split between you and your physical being is a key distance on this record. It implies both control (you can lord over your body) and a lack of same (you can’t be a unified part of it) simultaneously.
There are other ways control is lost here. “In a Big City” finds troubling anonymity in moving to the city. “Now I’m a drop in a deluge of hipsters,” Stickles claims, and you can hear the disappointment in his voice. Even the past tense of closer “Tried to Quit Smoking” feels like a lost grasp on order, especially order associated with consumption. These moments offer fascinating ideas and necessary confusions. Local Business doesn’t offer healing so much as it opens up huge gashes and asks us to root around in them. It also roots around in some new musical territory, like the country-tinged yarn “In a Big City” or the dusty blue-light ballad turned barn-stomper “Tried to Quit Smoking”. In these moments we see how the band continues their punk fury but still pushes to find new permutations of it.
The trouble with Local Business, though, is that, for an album so focused on control, the songs themselves have a surprising lack of it. The best songs here—“In a Big City” and “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus” are two of them—get in and get out, make their mark and leave. Other songs lose tension by stretching out too far. “My Eating Disorder” has two long refrains, the first of which (“My eating disorder is inside of me”) feels too cyclical and on-the-nose. These longer songs have great smaller songs within them, but never quite earn their long runtimes. If The Monitor felt purposeful in its size, Local Business feels unfortunately bloated in spots, so that its lean rock muscle—and the production plays up razor-sharp guitars and big drums—loses its shape when the band yells “here it goes again” or “spit it out” again and again. All this doesn’t ruin the record, but it takes a tight focus and instead of expanding it in interesting ways, the album often pulls at it until it unravels. Local Business has lots of fascinating things to say about control but sometimes it gets lost in its own unruly order.
// Notes from the Road
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