Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles may have all the makings of a true-bred DIY punk, but he’s always been a classic rocker at heart. On the band’s fifth album, A Productive Cough, Stickles has done away with all the stylistic trappings that buoyed the group’s grassroots rise out of New York dive bars: the mangy guitars, the screaming, the pummeling tempos, and the Seinfeld references. What’s left is a clear and potent distillation of Stickles’s classic-rock influences filtered through the iconoclastic lens of a guy who hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Despite the clean production and largely decreased noise level, A Productive Cough is Titus Andronicus’s freshest, wildest, most unexpected work to date.
The noisiest songs on the group’s sprawling and stylistically diverse 2015 album The Most Lamentable Tragedy often felt perfunctory, especially compared to crowd-pleasing anthems like “I Lost My Mind” and “Dimed Out.” But the distinction between A Productive Cough and Titus Andronicus’s previous work is far more complicated than mere volume or intensity. The press release hypes an increased focus on both ballads and Stickles’s lyrics as the main points of departure, but that’s reductionist and not even entirely accurate in capturing this album’s defining characteristics.
In fact, the only song here that derives its primary momentum from its lyrics is “Number One (In New York).” A sort of songwriter’s workshop experiment, A Productive Cough’s lead single is structured as a solitary, ranting verse. Over the course of eight minutes, Stickles gradually turns his withering eye inward, starting out political with barbs at “Deplorable forces” and “Hopeless hapless masses,” but by song’s end, he gets devastatingly personal: “Yes, I’ve been everywhere, but everywhere that I’ve been/I’ve been out of my element, even in my own skin/And I can’t begin to think what I’d tell people back home/So I tell it to the microphone.” Even here, though, musical ingenuity is key to the song’s emotional impact. Forty years of rock history have conditioned us to assume that the song’s relentlessly circling arpeggiated piano riff and twinkling bells will eventually explode into a cathartic climax. But Stickles only grows more desperate and bedraggled as “Number One (In New York)” wears on, and just when it seems as though the payoff may finally arrive, the track modulates to a minor key, ending in a state of darkness and uncertainty.
On the rest of the album, Stickles’s lyrics are far less wordy, composed largely of repetitive everyman mantras about reading the newspaper, riding the subway, and hitting up the corner bodega. Profound in their simplicity, they serve as bedrocks that ground Stickles’s stylistic and textural experiments. “Number One (In New York)” is also one of just a couple of songs here that could reasonably be classified as a ballad, though it’s played more like an Irish wake-style drinking song. Indeed, A Productive Cough is as loud as any other Titus Andronicus album, and even its least ostensibly “punk” song, “Crass Tattoo,” a gorgeous traditional-style ballad sung touchingly by folk singer Megg Farrell, is about a tattoo Stickles got in his 20s in honor of the titular anarcho-punk band. Like that tattoo, his punk roots may never fully fade, but they’re more of a reminder of the past than an inflexible ethos.
After all, the album is grounded in recognizably pre-punk, classic-rock touchstones, from Bruce Springsteen to the Rolling Stones. It also features a huge ensemble, including Lucero pianist Rick Steff, plus enough credited backup singers to populate a small town. This allows the band to flash some classicist chops. “Home Alone” is a harder, meaner Crazy Horse-style rocker than Neil Young himself has written in some time, while “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” digs a streetwise groove as natural as any of Lou Reed’s ’70s work. “Real Talk,” with its New Orleans-style brass flourishes, sounds like it drew some inspiration from Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions era, but it’s far rowdier than anything the Boss ever envisioned. With Stickles’s growly doomsaying about war and the economy, Matt “Money” Miller’s hype man-style interjections, and the sheer number of people playing at the same time, it becomes deafening by the end, like a party on the eve of the apocalypse.
The best example of Stickles turning rock history on its head is “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone.” The song is perhaps the first-ever worthwhile cover of Bob Dylan’s opus—and all it took was changing the pronouns. It’s no longer a sneering, imperious put-down, but rather an exercise in merciless self-flagellation. “We know how it feels/To be on our own,” Stickles brays, bringing a song that’s become so venerated as to become a sort of museum piece back to a place of accessibility. And once he’s done toying with Dylan, he begins a lengthy Rolling Stones-themed outro, tackling their uncomfortable late-career legacy as a Vegas-style oldies act by name-checking their backup singers. But even as Stickles delightedly knocks down these idols of rock, he’s reinvigorating their legacy. Anyone can play rote Dylan covers or write facsimiles of Richards-esque guitar riffs, but it takes a songwriter and interpreter of a higher caliber to turn them into something truly surprising.