Titus Andronicus has always seemed at least nominally inspired by the tone of Shakespeare’s fiercest, least elegant play, from which the band took its name, churning out raucous, ambitiously nasty songs steeped in venom and gloom. Flipping the operatic romance of fellow Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen into invocations of the rotting underside of suburbia, the band combines braying vocals and flashy, distortion-muddled guitar work with a weird mishmash of influences: snide punk-rock sloganeering, jet-black existentialism, found-sound clips of historical speeches and theatrical monologues.
This chaotic, chockablock presentation gets scaled back on Local Business in favor of a streamlined sound that doesn’t have quite the same impact, even if Titus Andronicus’s attitude remains just as unrepentantly baleful. Their lyrical aesthetic is summed up by “Ecce Homo,” one of the album’s best tracks, opening with a casually withering précis that doubles as a reminder of the band’s outlook: “Okay, I think by now we’ve established/That everything is inherently worthless/And there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” The album’s focus never moves very far beyond this wordy, still-simplistic brand of nihilism, so consider it a warning for the uninitiated, as well as a reaffirmation of the band’s continued ability to excel at an eclectically presented venting of misery.
The difference is that the relative tidiness of Local Business, with the guitar solos pushed down evenly in the mix, the vocals and instruments not furiously and haphazardly piled on top of one another, undercuts the power of the songs. Titus Andronicus’s aesthetic remains so feverishly amateurish that cleaner production doesn’t suit them, resulting in cheesy bursts of neutered, jokey fury, like the thankfully short “Food Fight!” This is most evident on the album’s last two songs, which are also its least effective, both forays in ill-advised directions. “(I Am The) Electric Man” collapses under its dreary midtempo structure and uninspired refrain, while “Tried to Quit Smoking” is the album’s longest track and also its emptiest. The latter is a slow, sweeping ballad that sounds juvenile and inane; lines like “It’s not that I do not love you/It’s just that I hate everyone” might work in the context of a roaring screed, but they don’t stand up to the scrutiny afforded by this sort of minimal backing.
These kind of difficulties plague Local Business, which is full of tracks that might seem less silly were they more hot-blooded and more akin to the raging storms kicked up on The Monitor and The Airing of Grievances. There are still expressions of real force, like the dirty honesty and hints of grandiosity of “In a Big City” and “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus,” which pulse with grittily specific character detail and a bratty sense of pissed-off entitlement. But just like the rest of the album, they’re Molotov cocktails that would benefit from a little more gasoline.