For the better part of a decade now, Titus Andronicus has served as a mouthpiece for Patrick Stickles. The band’s lead singer and principal songwriter has long used his personal life as source material for his densely rich lyrical narratives and musings on the human condition. Where before he often relied on allusions and emotional projection to convey his inner demons, the band’s latest album, yet another massive rock opera, uses Stickles’ mental health battles as the basis for its subject matter.
Like an American Shane MacGowan, Stickles is highly revered for his literary lyrics, often delivered in brutal torrents and a throat-shredding bark that threatens to leave him without a voice. But like MacGowan, his uncanny ability to tap into universal emotions and a wide array of deeply personal feelings allow his songs to resonate for a far wider audience than the music, taken at face value, might indicate.
At 29 tracks, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is equal in number to their previous three albums combined. And at a massive 94 minutes, it’s the epic which they have long been intimating themselves capable of producing. Sticking largely to hard-charging punk rock with fist pumping, shout-along choruses, they prove themselves still capable of whipping a crowd into a frenzy. But mixed in with the expected throat-shredding cathartic anthems are a host of subtler songs that show the group expanding their compositional prowess, bringing in strings, choral arrangements and a great deal more piano.
Far from an all out stylistic reinvention, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is more a logical next step in their evolution from lo fi literary punks to Civil War-referencing concept album artists to 2012’s more restrained and song-oriented Local Business. While there are elements of all three albums on their latest, Tragedy sticks closest in form and function to The Monitor (there’s even a track called “More Perfect Union”), with its overarching thematic through line that finds lead vocalist and principle songwriter Patrick Stickles moving from a ferocious bark to warbling croon that, at times, sounds a bit like early Bright Eyes played on a warped disc.
As with their previous albums, Stickles’ lyrics are so densely constructed and frantically delivered it frequently proves impossible to decipher just what it is he is in fact singing about. But fortunately, he is so emotionally resonant as a vocalist that the avalanche of lyrics, while often lost, still manages to come through with their intended impact largely intact.
On “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” Stickles screams “I hate to be awake” over and over, echoing the sentiment of those suffering from depression. Equally, if not more so, “No Future Park V: In Endless Dreaming” may well be the most on the mark, harrowing depiction of mental illness yet committed to record. A hauntingly stark piano ballad that finds Stickles pushing himself vocally and lyrically by song’s end to convey the depth of his inner struggle, it’s one of the most affecting songs in the band’s catalog thus far.
“Fired Up,” the most instrumentally epic track on the album, functions as a contemporary “Born To Run,” channeling Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound-style production and filtering it through the grime of punk. It’s a crowning achievement that pays homage to their state’s patron saint and finds them in good company, pushing themselves instrumentally and compositionally to new and greater heights than before. Similarly, “Fatal Flaw,” with its dueling guitars, prominent piano and shout-along chorus feels like classic southern rock filtered through heart-on-sleeve punk. With its extended instrumental passages strewn throughout, Titus Andronicus show where words fail, their raging guitars are more than capable of filling the void with a sound and feel no words could ever truly replicate.
The perennial New Year’s anthem “Auld Lang Syne” is given a largely reverential, choral-based treatment that, on the song’s closing line, devolves into a wildly dissonant guitar chord strummed repeatedly before leading into “I’m Going Insane (Finish Him).” One of the most aggressive tracks on the album, “I’m Going Insane (Finish Him),” like the similarly themed “I Lost My Mind” (both versions), deals explicitly with Stickles’ fears surrounding his bipolarity and manages to create the sound of the internal chaos, confusion and outright frustration the disease can bring about in those suffering.
“He don’t act like me / but we look alike,” he shouts on “Lookalike”, encapsulating the inherent frustration in outwardly appearing the same but finding your actions and emotions often wildly out of character. Full of dissonance that rarely resolves itself, The Most Lamentable Tragedy perfectly approximates the inherent frustrations raging within those struggling with mental illness. A massive, sprawling mess of styles and genres, all rooted in Stickles’ wordy lyrical catharsis, Tragedy reflects the wild mood swings associated with those suffering from bipolar disorder; raging one moment, euphoric the next before settling into a seemingly bottomless depression. And like those suffering, it’s not always a pleasant listening experience, but when it’s on, it’s some of their best and most musically mature work yet.