Titus Andronicus Excel With a Stripped-Down Approach on 'An Obelisk'
On their sixth studio album, New Jersey punk rockers Titus Andronicus, normally associated with big, ambitious gestures, get back to basics.
21 June 2019
Despite the fact that they're essentially punk rockers - albeit ones with a strong sense of melody – Titus Andronicus is a band that loves big, sweeping moves. The Monitor was their American Civil War concept album. The Most Lamentable Tragedy was a 93-minute rock opera. Hell, they named themselves after a Shakespeare tragedy. All this amounts to a bit of head-scratching when you hear An Obelisk.
With this latest album, the band – led by singer/songwriter Patrick Stickles – puts away lofty themes in favor of louder amps and stripped-down riffs. Recorded at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Studio in Chicago, An Obelisk was produced by punk rock legend and Merge labelmate Bob Mould, who can do this kind of thing in his sleep. That isn't to say that An Obelisk is a predictable piece of work – if anything, the simpler style of this album almost makes it stand out in their discography. Their previous album, 2018's A Productive Cough, seemed to lack any type of textual themes, although the more ballad-oriented approach of that album stands in direct contrast to what would follow.
While Mould's influence certainly looms large, it's really frontloaded by the opening track. The sturdy riffs and steady tempo of "Just Like Ringing a Bell" sound like a lost track left off latter-day Mould solo albums like Sunshine Rock or Silver Age. But throughout the album's ten tracks, the punk fury begins to give way to different sub-genres – held together with plenty of loud guitars, but still allowing for a decent amount of variety.
Sure, the self-explanatory "(I Blame) Society" is – right down to its title - an almost generic punk anger-fest, and "On the Street" sounds like an Americanized version of early Jam singles, but what about "Troubleman Unlimited", which cops Craig Finn's unique knack of combining confessional rambling with Bruce Springsteen-like heartland swagger? Add to that the bluesy shuffle of "Hey Ma" and you've got an album with a surprising amount of range for two guitars, bass, and drums.
That isn't for one second meant to suggest that Stickles, guitarist Liam Betson, bassist R.J. Gordon, and drummer Chris Wilson have any ambitions to hit the classic rock nostalgia circuit. Titus Andronicus are still an angry, energetic, youthful band. They just don't have a grand concept to wrap the music around this time.
But the songs have plenty of heft to be counted as well-crafted musical statements. "The Lion Inside" even manages to conjure up the influence of Mould's legendary Minneapolis trio, Hüsker Dü, with an elegant, mature structure within the riffage and even some dreamy harmonies are thrown in for good measure (recalling Mould's longtime admiration for both the Byrds and the Beach Boys). "Tumult Around the World" closes out the album with a loud, distorted, catchy riff, paired with a sentiment that's both angry and anthemic. An Obelisk manages to capture Titus Andronicus in a disarming, unsuspecting mood: one of equal parts maturity, volume, and simplicity.
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