The definitive ranking of the 10 best songs from the first decade of New Jersey's own Post-Modern Lovers, Titus Andronicus.
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.
10. "My Time Outside the Womb" (The Airing of Grievances, 2008)
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.
9. "Stable Boy" (The Most Lamentable Tragedy, 2015)
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.
8. Theme From "Cheers" (The Monitor, 2010)
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.
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