Review: Titus Andronicus' The Most Lamentable Tragedy

The New Jersey sextet's outstanding new album lends itself to consideration on a number of levels
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The New Jersey sextet's outstanding new album lends itself to consideration on a number of levels
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A mother and daughter stand before an enormous painting. “Isn’t it beautiful?” asks the mother. The daughter turns her head from left to right, attempting to view the painting in its entirety. “But mother,” she asks, after a moment, “how can I know it’s beautiful if I can’t see it all at once?”

The Most Lamentable Tragedy, to extend the metaphor, is a very large painting. 29 tracks, 93 minutes, and one very big record. Which raises the question, how do we see it all at once? By what standards do we judge its success?

The most obvious, of course, is the most fundamental: are the songs good? The answer, to condense weeks of agonizing, is yes, albeit inconsistently. TMLT comprises more than a traditional album’s worth of excellent, guitar-driven, growl-laden punk rock. “Dimed Out”, a reference to maxing out every setting on a guitar amp, conveys as much alienation and desperation as any Titus song to date. “Stranded (On My Own)” is confusion and heartbreak distilled. These songs, and others, work. Yet, it would be impossible to say that TMLT functions well as a collection of singles. The standouts are instantly recognizable, and unlikely to change with time. On first listen, this makes TMLT an agonizing disappointment—Titus’ other albums are defined by flexibility and balance, neither of which does TMLT possess.

This bears great import on another conventionally analytic approach: how does the album flow? Once again, the answer is imperfectly. Due to the radically varying song structure, no more than three successive songs ever move seamlessly together. While these are often short and harmless—“Magic Morning’s” ambient noise or “I Lost My Mind’s” a capella opening—longer attempts at breaking procedure sink TMLT more with complication more than they buoy the album with creativity. The choral cover of the Scottish traditional “Aud Lang Syne” feels bizarre and inappropriate, despite its thematic relevance. “More Perfect Union” is as overlong as it is melodically unappealing. The song, however, does have its uses—I easily empathized with the protagonist’s suicidal thoughts, when, at the four-minute mark, I realized I was not only barely halfway through the song, but barely halfway through the album. This seems, at first, to be a problem. Stuck approaching TMLT in the same vein as Titus’ earlier releases, one likely emerges confused and disappointed.

Such attempts at orthodox evaluation, however, inevitably come up inadequate in the face of TMLT’s undeniable grandiosity. Remember, please, the size of the picture. Ideally, the work itself offers clues as to the optimal reading. Titus Andronicus, in their infinite wisdom, hands us the answer right at the halfway mark: one minute and eighteen seconds of silence. Formally dividing the TMLT in two, “[intermission]” argues that TMLT isn’t a proper album; it’s a show. A tragedy in the Grecian sense: a drama based on human suffering.

Yet, perhaps what most elevates TMLT is its extraordinary meta-narrative. While it is possible to read TMLT as a self-contained, plot driven rock opera, the album’s conspicuous intertextuality renders such a diegetic interpretation incomplete. Stickles did not create TMLT in isolation. Beyond the constant lyrical, melodic, and thematic references to Titus’ previous works, TMLT’s catalogue of allusion extends well into our so-called real world. Thus, the album lends itself to consideration on a number of levels.

Level 1: TMLT as drama

Rock-operas vary greatly in the literal application of the term. While some have easily recognizable storylines embedded in the songs, others, like Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, are more liberal with respect to coherent plot. TMLT falls somewhere in the middle, chronicling a young man’s encounter with a mischievous doppelgänger, the beautiful Siobhan and his enduring struggle with mental illness and drug use.

As far as pure storytelling goes, TMLT isn’t exactly a slam-dunk. The album is long and meandering, abandoning the plot for aggressive tangents beyond the protagonist’s struggle. The extended metaphors—his Lookalike, the literally lost mind, the Beast Within—are all insanity clichés we've encountered before. Incorporating these images into the rock-opera format, however, breathes new life into tired ideas, as does the earnestness with which they're presented. Stickles may never be a bard, but what he lacks in coherence, he makes up in energy and desperation, TMLT's saving grace.

Note: Anyone truly interested in TMLT on a textual, intellectual level, owes it to himself or herself to spend five or six hours on Genius exploring Patrick Stickles’ lovingly curated lyrical annotations.

Double Note: Contains spoilers.

Level 2: TMLT as biography

Over the years, many notable musicians from Kurt Cobain to Wayne Coyne have cited the ill-fated, mentally ill Daniel Johnston as an influence. TMLT goes a step further, hinting at Johnston as the album’s protagonist.

The most obvious allusion comes in “I Lost My Mind (DJ),” an energetic punk-cover of Johnston’s meandering masterwork. The song is TMLT epitomized—angry, confused, and isolated, drawn from the missing mind of indie-rocks beloved, castoff genius. And, while the protagonist of TMLT doesn’t have Johnston’s lovable quirks (Johnston once refused to sign with Elektra Records, convinced Metallica, another artist they represented, was Satan), the parallels are undeniable—a sensitive youth sparked by drug use into a psychotic break that alienates him and ultimately undermines his creative aspirations.

The greatest argument, though, comes at the album’s close. Recorded on a cassette tape with Stickles wailing whimsically over a chord organ, “Stable Boy,” is carbon copy Johnston. To end TMLT on such an explicit homage elucidates Stickles’ biographical inspiration, if not his narrative intention.

Level 3: TMLT as autobiography

Stickles has remained careful to remind us that TMLT is fiction. He probably doesn’t have an evil, clean-shaven doppelgänger lurking in the shadows. That said, it’s no secret that Patrick Stickles has struggled with both mental illness and attempts to medicate it.

In a recent Grantland article, Stickles discussed the ways in which psychoactive drugs have both enabled his life as a musician even as they deadened the impulses that sparked his career in the first place. Yet, Stickles does not limit TMLT to his own experience, paying homage to the works like Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire, which explores the fraught relationship between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. In this respect, Stickles has grown to a bipolar-poet poster child, alongside Cobain and Whitman. Unlike Whitman, however, Stickles has come of age in a time that asserts a “solution” for such issues: medication.

Beyond the narrative parallels, it’s difficult not read TMLT as Stickles’ argument against modern psychiatric devices. “I Lost My Mind (+@)” and “Fired Up” echo famous antiestablishment academics like Michel Foucault and Thomas Szasz, whose book The Myth of Mental Illness defined the antipsychiatry movement of the 1960s, decrying psychiatry as a means of social control. “I didn’t know what it meant to be institutionalized,” sings Stickles. “I begged for readmission, it was denied.” Having capitulated to the psychiatric system, it is entirely impossible to escape the stigma of diagnosis and reenter the world of the sane.

Stickles, an internationally recognized artist, has escaped, to some degree, the machinery of the institution. Here, TMLT shows Stickles’ alternate history, one in which his creativity did not rescue him, but condemn him to the cage of the psychiatric system.

Level 4: TMLT as argument and summation

Only four LPs into their existence, Titus Andronicus has released an album that feels like the culmination of a much longer career. It’s fatter with self-reference than Arrested Development, re-employing titles (“More Perfect Union”) and lyrics from every Titus release so far. Eventually, some wonderful, obsessed cartographer of the internet will map out all the connections between TMLT and Titus’ other albums, as if it were Infinite Jest or Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

Here’s my personal favorite Easter Egg: Reportedly, the cassette recorder used to tape “Stable Boy” is the same machine that recorded the first verse of “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ,” the lead track on Titus’ debut album. And, considering Stickles’ oft-intimated threat that this could be Titus’ ultimate release, the physical wink of recording method only grows that much more devilish—the cycle of drugs, depression, and mania can only repeat. Oh, how lovely it is to find in popular music a technique so Joycean.

This unprecedented delving into the cyclical, intra-Titus universe only heightens the sense of finality in Stickles’ tragic conclusions. Earlier albums toyed with an optimism TMLT refuses to offer. Here, “Stable Boy,”—a song about resistance after surrender—proffers the album’s sole advice: the hope to fight on exists only in acceptance of one’s fate. Unlike The Monitor, which oozed solidarity and sing-along chants, TMLT is a solitary, particular experience—the only voices are the ones in your head. The classic-rock-style harmonies are as surprising and unsettling as they are beautiful, as if sung by an internal, imagined schizophrenic chorus. When Stickles covers his own “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe,” endlessly grunting, “I’m going insane,” he sounds more resigned than ever before. His inevitable madness has already defeated him.

This song is a rare gut punch for the album’s B-side. On a purely emotional level, the TMLT’s first half, excepting “A More Perfect Union”, matches Titus’ greatest work. The back half, by contrast, lacks both energy and focus. Perhaps this is form, reflecting content—the music grows more confused, deranged, and haphazard as does the protagonist’s brain. It is a disorienting listening experience, one that doesn’t allow the audience to get comfortable, though it’s unclear how much of that is by design and how much is the sheer difficulty of corralling so much varied material. By extending the album, Titus created art equally more impressive and vulnerable.

Ultimately, though, TMLT is about such unbalanced relationships. Relationships between halves. Between albums. Between the body and the mind, protagonist and doppelgänger, hero and worshipper. At the possible end of a storied string of releases, Stickles has become a generational spokesperson for the alienated and disillusioned. TMLT makes clear, however, that while Stickles can laudably describe internal struggle, he cannot save you; that is a person’s own, inexorably tragic journey.

Now, to my least favorite part: the grade. In the post-Pitchfork universe, all albums need quantification. Yet, after spending weeks wrapped in musical digestion, such simplification feels hollow—what hope have we in capturing such an elaborate, lavish work in a single letter?

The goal, of course, is comparison. Is this actually, as Stickles hopes, his magnum opus? The answer, in my mind, is no. Twenty years from now, teenagers will still masturbate to The Monitor, while TMLT may very well become an excellent curiosity. Ulysses vs. Finnegan’s Wake. In this way, TMLT invites us to choose what we value in rock and roll—execution or aspiration. No, TMLT is not as precise as The Monitor, nor as pleasurable. It does, however, surpass it in imagination and aim. This alone cements The Most Lamentable Tragedy as one of this year’s greatest rock records. As anyone who’s ever read War and Peace knows, masterpieces are sometimes fatty and indulgent. It is the price of painting on so large a canvas.

If we’re lucky enough to ever get another Titus Andronicus record, perhaps accomplishment will finally match ambition—and that could mean perfection.

A- 

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is out Friday. Pre-order it on MP3, CD, and vinyl.