Scott McCaughey has been accidentally living the rock & roll dream, in all its folly and glory, for forty years or so. See: Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, R.E.M., the Baseball Project, etc. He lives in Portland, Oregon, rides a girl-bike, rarely changes clothes, and in his spare time fixates on burritos and baseball. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Listening to Titus Andronicus is a bit of a commitment. It takes a mind willing to digest ideas and feelings spit out at the speed of sound. It takes ears willing to be both cudgeled and cajoled. And if you really want to give the attention deserved, a little research and outside reading might be in order. That may be asking a lot in our world of instant gratification and constant distraction, but it’s worth the effort in this case.
Of course, you can always just jump around and enjoy the experience of hearing a supremely confident and ambitious band doing what it does better than ‘most any other around. Titus Andronicus is a force, and quite ready to force its latest mega-opus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, down our collective throats. Yes, it’s a rock opera, which practically requires it to be a double album, which it is. Hardly new to conceptual and thematically linked long-players (see 2010’s epic The Monitor), Patrick Stickles and an ever-morphing cast consciously scaled down the grandiosity factor with 2012’s Local Business. With TMLT they have, quite intentionally I believe, challenged themselves to a new exercise in exorcism and one-upmanship.
TMLT tells the story of one man’s struggle with his inner demons and doubts, and with identity itself. Our Hero goes through various crises, hallucinations, dreams, drugs and realizations that parallel the changing of the seasons as well as various stages of good old-fashioned manic depression. (Nope, no “bipolar” business here.) Like all good rock operas, the plot tends toward the sketchy and nonlinear, but that’s not a criticism. There are neither pinball wizardry nor scooter rallies. There are, however, a doppelganger, a Mystery Beast, and an immigrant ancestor; however, these are all facets of the protagonist’s confused and struggling personality, so the action is primarily internal, with Our Hero’s embattled mind bouncing him around in time and space rather mercilessly. Stickles’ tongue-twisting tirades are genius as ever, self-referential (with new installments of the catalogue-wide “More Perfect Union” and “No Future” franchises), alternately desperate and joyful, with puns, internal rhymes, and bleak or hopeful imagery, all framed in the unpredictably inventive phrasing I find endlessly inspiring and head-scratching.
After a brief keyboard lead-in, “No Future Triumphant” sounds a bombastic call to arms that, upon closer examination, is more a blatant cry for help. The singer’s a prisoner in a dump of his own device, wallowing in both real and metaphorical shit, finding solace only in sleep. It’s hard to imagine a more candid and wretched introduction to a main character. Musically the song careens forward on the litany of ills spewed by Stickles, until, sans vocal or solo, the guitars and drums pummel chords and beat relentlessly, setting up the chilling concluding mantra, “I hate to be awake.”
Later on, after a lengthy flashback, in the pivotal track “(S)he Said/(S)he Said,” (all nine minutes of it), Our Hero opens his eyes to one of numerous transformative episodes, leaving his sodden state for a hedonistic all-out sex-and-drug-fueled fling. As the need to consume temporarily overrules the reservations of his conscience, the song alternates between breakneck verses and a lumbering Sabbath-style riff, until crashing down to an almost-whispered, gospel-tinged movement of questioning and realization. But the mania returns, along with destructive urges – “I need to beat something, and it could be anything, as long as I get to win.”
Elsewhere along the way the Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and Daniel Johnston’s “I Had Lost My Mind” get good thrashings, completely unfettered by slavish devotion to the much-beloved originals. There are plenty of sing/scream/shout-along anthems here, with “Fired Up,” “Come On, Siobhán” and “Dimed Out” storming to rank amongst the group’s best. Of course, calling Titus Andronicus proud punk purveyors only hints at the breadth and skill of the band’s playing and the variety of the material on such a sprawling release. You get English folk elements and an instrumental exposition worthy of Steeleye Span or the Decemberists (“More Perfect Union”), the glammy Dolls stomp of “Lonely Boy,” and “Fatal Flaw,” which kicks off with the best Replacements riff that band never played, then slays with a dual guitar solo that Thin Lizzy would willingly have endorsed. (I’d be remiss in not mentioning new member and co-producer Adam Reich’s brilliant lead guitar work throughout.) There’s even a completely straight version of “Auld Lang Syne” that sounds like it could actually have been lifted from a Ray Conniff LP in some grandparent’s console hi-fi. Hey, maybe it was.
The story ends with “Stable Boy,” an innocent-on-the-surface but hardly naïve rumination in which the living ghost of Daniel Johnston is invoked again, at least to these ears. To the lone wheeze of a harmonium, Stickles sings enviously of horses, cats and birds and their blissful unawareness of time and the temporary nature of our corporeal existence. Singing in an unmannered voice that somehow equally blends melancholy and glee, Our Hero is left seemingly somewhat at peace (for the first time in the saga): “Now I know why I was born to die/I’ve been informed of forever.”
The Most Lamentable Tragedy is anything but, really. It’s laced with sadness, distress and fucked-upness, no doubt, but the overall effect is, against some odds, more triumphant than miserable. The thought of them touring this night after night for the next umpteen months renders me speechless with admiration (and also just makes my throat hurt). Stickles is constantly pushing Titus Andronicus harder and faster, farther and wider, and I can’t wait to see what lies in store. It’s hard to imagine more, because this album and this band are pretty damn dimed out already. But if any band these days can keep it dialed to eleven, I’d say it’s likely to be Titus Andronicus.