"Indie rock" is a term as amorphous and hard-to-pin-down as some of its associated lingo. But for our purposes here, we'll go with a line of demarcation strangely omitted from the discussion much of the time: the rock portion of the equation.
Continuing our celebration of PopMatters' 20th anniversary, we revisit our 10 picks for the best debut albums of 2009. It turns out our selections were prescient as many of these artists have gone on to storied careers. Travel back to 2009 and see them again for the first time.
Titus Andronicus is everything. They are a band that wants to literally encompass all possible things through music including: love, hate, God, no Gods, Springsteen, mental illness, bovine estrogen, commercialism, Futurama, pharmaceuticals, Billy Joel, Oi! punk, and (if you’re not busy) birth, death and the point of existence. Despite their avowed existentialism, this is music that’s far from without meaning.
Founded a decade ago in Glen Rock, New Jersey, Titus Andronicus was always centered around frontman, guitarist and Nietzschian protagonist Patrick Stickles. Their discography is a roadtrip through the singer’s life, interior and exterior. The band’s first album, The Airing of Grievances, was released by Troubleman Unlimited in 2008 and then quickly picked up by XL and re-released in 2009. It tells the story of his life up to that point with help from Shakespeare and Camus. 2010’s The Monitor was a massive statement album that focused on love, loss and struggle of life in modern America using (using the Civil War as the obvious analogy). Local Business from 2012 saw the band slim down physically to a core plug-and-play five piece and thematically by forgoing grandiosity for stinging self-criticism of Stickles’ life and immediate circumstances.
July 28th of this year saw both Stickles’ 30th birthday and the release of Titus Andonricus’ fourth album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a five-act, three-disc concept album about a manic-depressive breakdown. There has been rumblings from the [email protected] (their spelling) camp that this record may be their last. Of course Stickles has also talked about having the band’s next five years planned out, so believe what you will. But Stickles’ notations on the lyrics site Genius certainly seem to indicate that TMLT is the last chapter in a four album cycle, replete with intertextual references and iterwoven plot lines. If nothing else, it seems clear that the album is meant by the band to be a stopping point of one kind or another.
Although they’re known for their lo-fi vocals and mountains of guitars, Titus Andronicus is actually surprisingly versatile. “My Time Outside the Womb” off their first album is not just a delightful tranche of jangle-pop that shows off the band’s hooks but functions as a perfect introduction to their world. Starting at the literal beginning, Stickles details his life from moment of birth. As you might have guessed, being naked and alone features prominently, as does the inculcation of fear, be it of God, parents or his peers. He moves through elementary and middle school, finding solace in his friendship with future bandmate, Sarim Al-Rawi and playing the guitar. While so many of their generation have gorged themselves on Buzzfeed’s saturation-level nostalgia pieces, Titus focuses on the anxiety and awkwardness most try to forget.
By Patrick Stickles’ account in his many exhaustively detailed album summaries, it’s clear that “Stable Boy” is an incredible purposeful track. To start with, it was recorded on the very same tape machine that captured the opening of the band’s first song “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ”. It’s almost a little too on-the-nose how neatly this parallel underscores the idea that the songs of the band’s albums are a cycle, a journey that begins again as soon as it ends. With just a chord organ and his creaky, cracking voice, Stickles warbles through what might have easily been a simple Daniel Johnston pastiche. Johnston’s music and struggles with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia were clearly an inspiration, but there’s more going on here than a simple tribute. On “Stable Boy”, the hero of the album finally comes to terms with, well… everything. His life, death, mental illness and place in the world, are all somehow, if not resolved, then at least resolvable enough to keep going. He probably wouldn’t call it “God” but in nature (or “The Earthly Mother”), Stickles finds continuity, connection with something larger. The certainty of death also allows him the promise of peace and comfort in the eternal cycles of nature. In the annotations Stickles gets even more explicit — “I won’t kill myself. You won’t kill yourself. We won’t kill ourselves. Promise.” After railing against God for a decade, Titus Andronicus has finally written a hymn. So what if its deity is lifted from a Crass song? Salvation is salvation.
Of course Titus Andronicus named their best drinking song after an unimpeachable late ’80s TV theme song. Miraculously the title comes off as more than simple cheekiness because, let’s just say that if I ever produce a TV show set in a bar (and why not?), I’d do whatever it took to get playing over the opening credits. One of the many themes of The Monitor is the alienation and aimlessness of 21st century suburbia and this is where it reaches its nadir. “Theme From ‘Cheers'” starts as a seemingly straightforward celebration of roaming your hometown with a belly full of cheap booze but its three-act structure (how many drinking songs have THAT?) and inclusion of the Spider Bags’ Dan McGee reveal it to be something more. Stickles goes on to examine the rituals of drinking as existential salve for a life sidetracked. In the final act, Stickles and McGee (whose best known song is, of course, “Waking Up Drunk”) sing a tipsy verse as old men still downing car bombs and never having given up the fight. It’s a lot to cram into five minutes but the song still manages to breeze by and (pro-tip) brings down the house as an end-of-the-night singalong.
7. “Fatal Flaw” (The Most Lamentable Tragedy, 2015)
Perhaps the notable part of The Most Lamentable Tragedy is the fact that the hero actually finds a love interest who can provide him a measure of solace. Titus Andronicus isn’t exactly known for love songs but any kind of exploration of the meaning of life like the kind they’ve undertaken has to factor in humans’ primal need for companionship. Let us not forget that for all its historical majesty, The Monitor was also a pretty bruising breakup album. In “Fatal Flaw”, the hero not only decides to let his true self out but also to share it with his new love, Siobhán. In its own, Andronican way, it’s just another version of the cheesiest rom-com Grand Gesture. He’s just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to like him. Of course, he does this while having a possible break from reality and showing her that his true self may be inextricably linked to mental illness but the emotional core is there.
Speaking of emotional core, whenever a Jersey boy needs to express himself in a big way there’s only one way to do it — Springsteen — and boy does Titus ever have fun channeling The Boss. The song starts with faint wash of crowd noise and music video pulls together footage of amped-up live performances where Stickles does his best Springsteenian crowd work, clearly reveling in the lyrics’ catharsis. A monumental moment in the band’s catalog, this is as close as the band gets to a happy ending.
6. “Upon Viewing Brughel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus'” (The Airing of Grievances, 2008)
The Airing of Grievances, as any Gen-Xer knows, takes its title from Seinfeld. Specifically, it’s one of the rituals of Festivus, a holiday invented by Frank Costanza because he “hated all the religious and commercial aspects of Christmas”. It’s hard to think that’s a coincidence given the album’s rejection of modern life, especially religion and capitalism. “Upon Viewing Brughel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus'” references a famous renaissance painting that shows a farmer farming, ships sailing and life generally playing itself out happily while in a small corner, the hero, fallen from the sky due to his own hubris drowns quietly. It’s an image Stickles takes to heart, basically seeing his option as spectacular failure or submission to back-breaking routine. Finding both fates too horrible to contemplate, he rails against the God who has dealt him such a awful hand. Of course, ever the former Catholic, he still can’t avoid painting himself in Christ-like imagery, reluctantly accepting his deadly fate whether it be spectacular or monotonous. This even their darkest moments, Titus Andronicus songs avoid utter nihilism by virtue of utterly celebratory playing. In this case the band glides out on a set of graceful and searing interlocking guitar lines that suggest soaring far more than they do crashing to the water. At least for the time being.
5. “No Future, Pt. III: Escape From No Future” (The Monitor, 2010)
Situated right smack dab in the middle of Titus’ “No Future” series, “Escape From No Future” is the bridge that connects the young wandering high school existentialist from The Airing of Grievances to the doppelgänger-plagued hero of The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Looking down the barrel of graduation from Ramapo College and entry into the real world, Stickles starts the song with a bout of long languid depression (or is it existential fatigue?) before springing into a characteristically hyperactive rant. Eric Harm’s almost-martial drumming pattern underlines the lyrics about the grim march through life that society expects. These societal concerns are then linked to Stickles’ mental illness as he portrays himself as junkie, waiting for pills that will destroy “the one thing that made [him] beautiful”. It is also in this song that his other self is given physical form as a man (or possibly robot) locked in the dungeon of his psyche.
Ultimately the conflict between Stickles’ authentic self and society, between madness and conformity is a demoralizing one but, as always with this band, the struggle is still beautiful. “You will always be a loser” he screams over and over at the end, rejecting the rejection the rejection in that assessment. Fittingly enough, the music video is a tour of/love letter to the band’s unfairly-maligned home state of New Jersey. If there’s any place that can tell you something about leaning into life’s punches and still pressing forward, it’s the Garden State.
4. “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With the Flood of Detritus” (Local Business, 2012)
“Upon View Oregon’s Landscape With the Flood of Detritus” starts off in a unique way for a Titus Andronicus song — it’s about something that didn’t happen to the band directly. Of course, Stickles immediately turns his thoughts inwards but using the mundane tragedy that is a rush hour car crash as a set-piece for his musings on life, death and Nietzsche is an inspired choice. He starts by contrasts the first responders’ vain efforts to beat back death to the response of the rest of the onlookers’ impatience and unwillingness to process what they’ve seen. This grappling with mortality is another strong through-lines in the band’s catalog and Stickles is still clearly chewing on the idea here. Still, he is gaining some insight as he ages. He’s able to compare the birth of his brother’s children to the passing of his own youth in ways that point towards the larger truths that will later be fleshed out in “Stable Boy”.
Sonically, this is perhaps as clean as the band will ever get, not only are the guitar lines crisp and every lyric audible but there’s even goddamn sleigh bells on the track! (I guess if the Replacements did it, it can’t be a mortal sin.) The transformation of the song from a scruffier, more traditionally punk single version (complete with “oi oi oi”s from the So So Glos Alex Levine), is fascinating. It’s a quick peek at what the band could be when Patrick Stickles decides to shave and sing directly into the mic.
3. “Dimed Out” (The Most Lamentable Tragedy, 2015)
Titus Andronicus is the kind of band that inspires intense devotion in its hoarse and over-educated fans through its sheer maximalism. Whatever they do — philosophy, religion, soul-bearing, guitars, throat-shredding screams, pop-culture references, etc. — it does in the biggest way possible. To those on the same wavelength, it’s all so well done that it’s impossible not to love it, for those on a different frequency any one or all of those elements can be a bit much. So it was no surprise that the first single for their most maximalist of projects would be a celebration of droppin’ the hammer and lettin’ ‘er rip. According to Stickles, cranking guitars and effects pedals to ten “may not necessarily make the signal louder, but [it] will certainly make it more extreme”, a fitting description of everything that Titus Andronicus is going for.
Within the album, the song showcases the doppelgänger’s mania in its purest form and that also makes it as good a manifesto for the band as any. Getting dimed out means removing all external restraints and letting that man in the dungeon out to play. Although not really an explicitly political band, it’s fair to say that most of Titus’s music espouses a kind of anarchy. The lyrics may toy with nihilism, at its heart this band isn’t about pointless chaos. Instead theirs in an anarchy that espouses the necessity to know one’s own self without outside mediation (be it from the state, religion, medication or corporation) in order to live fully. It may sound like a lot to get through in under three minutes but, then again, when you’re dimed out, maybe not.
2. “A More Perfect Union” (The Monitor, 2010)
While The Airing of Grievances was massively ambitious, it was an album written in basements and it sounds like it. The Monitor, on the other hand, is a widescreen, epic, complete with historical trappings, naval battles and a cast of thousands. It announces itself as such on its title track. Starting with a building whine the music slowly builds under a stirring Abraham Lincoln quote until, containable no longer, the drums blast through the walls and sends the proceedings into second gear. It’s the kind of music best queued up just before an interstate on-ramp and timed to break open just as you’re hitting the open road. It is exhilaration personified. And not only that but the damn thing just keeps going. For seven minutes. And it somehow never loses its adrenaline. Stickles names checks everything from Billy Bragg to Independent League Baseball and yet somehow manages to tie things neatly into the album’s loose concepts about both Stickles moving to Boston and modern life reflecting the Civil War. You don’t even realize it but at some point between the Springsteen references and galloping guitars you realize that you’re punk song has turned into “John Brown’s Body” and nothing could feel more natural.
1. “Titus Andronicus” (The Airing of Grievances, 2008)
Much of satisfaction in Titus Andronicus records is the inherent tension between Patrick Stickles’ lyrics about life’s dysphoric meaninglessness and the music’s unbridled and joyous vitality. It should be no surprise that the song which bears the band’s name is perhaps the best example of this. With all the over-intellectualization of the excruciating minutiae of everyday life seen elsewhere in their catalog, “Titus Andronicus” is a visceral response to all the things that would slowly beat us down and drag us away from our humanity — work, church, societal expectations, etc.
The production is also pretty visceral. The song actually starts with a whistle and gears up like a steam boat chugging slowly to life. Massive drums start thumping behind the rhythm guitar as the other systems slowly come online. Pretty soon bass, piano and a wicked harmonica are all humming as Stickles thrashes through the song. Stickles vocals are an adventure that are often off-meter but always on-message emotionally. “Your life is over / Your life is over,” he screams for the last 90 seconds, demonstrating punk’s ability to turn the a bitter denial into a total affirmation. Smoke, have sex, fall down drunk, rock the fuck out, says Titus Andronicus, because most days it’s all we can do to feel alive.