Doing for Jersey and alienated Jersey lowlifes what Dropkick Murphys has spent a career doing for Ireland and the Boston bar scene, Titus Andronicus play an earnest brand of throwback punk wherein every bar fight deserves a monument and every curfew, every hour at the office, and every MIP or DUI is an invocation to raise firsts in riotous defense of freedom. Their no-apologies, no-prisoners approach to rock made The Airing of Grievances a viciously entertaining debut, and also proved the secret to the band’s best trick: taking the sort of self-centered, self-loathing lyrics that emo bands don’t even dare to write and making them not only palatable, but fun. By wrapping them in scabrous guitar riffs and blaring horns, Titus Andronicus took would-be clunkers like “You’ll spend the rest of your life trying to hard to forget/That you met the world naked and screaming/And that’s how you’ll leave it” and transmuted them into glorious, sing-along gold.
Having conquered the adolescent angst-rock genre in one fell swoop, Titus Andronicus now turns their attention to another rock n’ roll archetype known chiefly for its tendency toward bloat and boredom: the concept album. Their sophomore disc, The Monitor, is supposed to relate crucial events from the American Civil War, fusing the historical and the personal into one grandiose statement. You hear ideas like that and glance at the setlist (which includes plenty of seven- and eight-minute tracks, a runtime safely over an hour) and you begin to wonder if the desire to make an art-rock curio has drained the piss and vinegar out of the guys. If that’s your concern, than the all-in opener “A More Perfect Union” isn’t just here to allay your worries—it’s going to kick your ass for even entertaining them. Less than two minutes in, Stickley demurs from any big ambitions with characteristic self-immolating charm: “I never wanted to change the world/But I’m looking for a new New Jersey/Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die!” With the Boss thereby paid homage, the band indulges in the first incendiary guitar solo on an album full of them. Excepting some spliced recordings on the intro and outro and a late-coming bridge that enjoins listeners to “rally around the flag,” it’s hard to tell what the song could possibly have to do with the Civil War, but hell if it isn’t a party either way.
As the album progresses, it focuses less on American history and more on the story of a slacker kid from Jersey who bums around down South and later up in Boston, flunking classes and drinking 40s while trying to make his own way into the adult world. To the extent that the Civil War plays a part in all of this, its more to throw an epic caste behind some classically adolescent ideas: fighting for freedom, rebelling against your parents’ way of life, living on what feels like enemy territory. Truth be told, the extended metaphors may not have been worth the effort as, concept or no, the lyrics tend to come in two flavors: overwrought diary fodder that you can’t help but love (“I’m at the end of my rope and I feel like swinging!”) and those that are too overwrought for even as formidably theatrical a group as Titus Andronicus to pull off (“I am covered in urine and excrement but I’m alive!”). The Monitor is an album about perpetual rebellion, and whether that strikes you as exciting or wearying will have a great bearing on how much you get out of it.
The most surprising—and rewarding—development on The Monitor is sonic, not thematic. Though it’s bookended with bar-punk ragers in the Pogues-meets-Springsteen mode, the album stretches out in its middle cuts, detouring through rollicking piano-driven numbers and a stretch of country-derived songs that recall the Mekons of Fear and Whiskey. While the loping, boozy pace of those songs makes a nice contrast to the breakneck opening act, there’s no denying that the band sounds best when blazing through one of their nervy tantrums. In particular, the choice to follow the slower, eight-minute “A Pot in Which to Piss” with the slower, eight-minute “Four Score and Seven” was a poor one, and it weighs heavily on the album’s momentum. Still, the downtempo dalliances do bear rewards: “To Old Friends and New” achieves a kind of stumbling, drunken majesty when it builds to its sing-along finish.
Between that track and the scathing closer, “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” comes a bristling hardcore number called “...And Ever,” which reprises the chorus chant from “Titus Andronicus Forever”: “The enemy is everywhere!” For some listeners, hearing the band return to that restless slogan after nearly an hour of digressions is going to sound like the height of juvenile self-indulgence, not to mention repetitious songwriting; to others it will be a call back to the mosh pit, an invocation to renew the unending struggle against they tyranny of responsibility and conformity. Titus Andronicus is wagering not that their audience will consist of hopeless, pissed-off teens and twentysomethings, but that whoever you are, and whatever you’re up against, they can make you remember how that moment of being me-against-the-world, poised in between earnest idealism and total nihilism, felt. If you’re going to have an army against you, they seem to reason, then at the very least, you deserve to have a band urging you on to victory with cheerful cacophony.