Maybe it’s unwarranted prejudice, but from a band named after an early Shakespearean tragedy I expect the following: pomposity, pretension, overwrought falsetto, guitar solos, delusions of grandeur, contorted time changes, and long songs. Arguably, Titus Andronicus give us only the latter, though even that assessment depends on how much time you’ve spent in the company of Godspeed You Black Emperor!.
Instead, The Airing of Grievances is the neatly cued middle-ground between aggression and emotion, punk spirit and intellectualism, lingering youth and burgeoning maturity. In this respect, it captures well its period of conception, the bridge between the close of songwriter and lead vocalist Patrick Stickles’s school career and his first year of college. There’s the references to Shakespeare, Camus, and Brueghel, but there’s also the brash intensity of a sweaty but triumphant bar gig. There’s the unrestrained zeal of Stickles and his (in another context emo-friendly) lyrical bile, but there’s also the instrumental synchronicity and melody of the E Street Band or the Pogues. This duality is, to an extent, akin to that of Los Campesinos!—with whom they’ll spend the best part of February touring the US—even if the two sound nothing alike in specifics.
Stickles himself spits out a similar breed of quivering, strangled howls to those that were Conor Oberst’s stock-in-trade before he laid off the drugs and opened a cattle ranch, but here they sound defiant rather than emotionally desperate. “Titus Andronicus”, in particular, is joyfully malicious; hear its group-chanted refrain of “Your life is over!” and you can almost see the New Jersey quintet gathered round some malefactor, thrusting taunts and jibes with gleeful malice. When you realise the line is actually addressed inwardly to Stickles himself in the eponymous song, which imagines an unsustainable life of “No more sex / No more drinking…/ No more indie rock”, the venom seems directed doubly at the staunch conformists instituting those rules and at Stickles himself for relying on his supposed vices. “Upon Brueghel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’” captivates similarly, although perversely entirely differently too. Here, Stickles’s account of a religious experience that intuits only nihilism is intriguing enough, but again, the thrill is all in the intensity of delivery, in the vitriolic hopelessness and the mangled, incendiary guitar lines.
Re-released and re-mastered the album may be, but Grievances wisely hasn’t tampered too much with the clamorous sonics of its initial release. Much of it sounds as though it’s being played through a wall (albeit a paper-thin one), and there are sections ramped up to a volume where every guitar or vocal must fight its way through a fog of fuzz to find your ear. But this isn’t a criticism—aside from enhancing, for example, the curiously hypnotic chaos of “Fear and Loathing in Manwah”‘s conclusive wig-out, this blur makes moments of clarity all the more potent. Stand-out “Arms Against Atrophy” benefits most, seized four minutes in by a massive riff that transforms what, beneath Stickles’s cries, is a hazy head-nodder into hair-pricklingly lucid. And that moment epitomises an album that at first seems impenetrable, but it exhibits such raw, open-wounded delivery that what might initially buffet is the exact reason for coming back for more. Each play of Grievances is like that triumphant, sweaty bar show, right there in your room.