Review: Titus Andronicus- The Monitor
Sorry Grant, but I have seen the future of rock and roll, and I gotta wonder just what the hell they put in the water in New Jersey. I probably won’t be able to describe this very well so please just listen to it for yourself.
Apparently this one has been out a few months, but I hadn’t heard of it until a few weeks ago. A friend of mine told me I needed to listen to it and because a concept album about the Civil War from a band named after a somewhat obscure Shakespeare play seemed like something that may appeal to my eclectic tastes, I took his advice.
But I did do my research first and I found out that this is the band’s second album following 2008’s The Airing of Grievances and that they hail from the great state of New Jersey. So inevitably I came across a few misguided Springsteen comparisons in online reviews and while the Springsteen influence is certainly there (and is even addressed) and they are undoubtedly the best act to come out of Jersey since the E Street Band (sorry Bon Jovi), after listening to the album I feel that the title of the “next Springsteen/Dylan/Guthrie/whatever” actually belongs to somebody like Patterson Hood or John McCauley. Titus Andronicus is more like a mix of Jim Steinman lyrics, Kurt Cobain angst, Mekons roots-punk music, and way too many other elements to name.
And I found out that it isn’t really a concept album about the Civil Wat, either. Instead, it is an album about the life of a New Jersey teenager/twentysomething as interpreted through plenty of Civil War imagery.
The album opens with “A More Perfect Union”. The track begins with a reading of an excerpt from a speech by Abraham Lincoln. Then the music starts and the song doesn’t go an entire verse before we hear the first Springsteen reference: “I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey”, the singer shouts in a voice he borrowed from Conor Oberst, “because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die”. We are then treated to an excellent guitar solo and several references to Jefferson Davis, John Brown, and the Jersey Slide. If there’s been a better opening to an album this year, I have yet to hear it.
The bar band-styled rave-up “Titus Adronicus Forever” follows with its endless repetition of the line “The enemy is everywhere”. Clocking in at just over a minute and a half, it is the shortest track on an album of very long tracks.
The third track “No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future” features distorted garage rock guitars and modern emo lyrics (“Smoking’s been OK so far, but I need something that works faster/So all I want for Christmas is no feelings, no feelings now and never again”). After several minutes of similar thoughts, the song ends with a group of vocalists repeatedly chanting “You’ll always be a loser” and a single snare drum as if marching into battle.
Perhaps the most Springsteen-esque track, “Richard III” is also a highlight of the album and musically it also reminds me a lot of The Ramones and the Faces. But they get far more pessimistic than Springsteen ever dared to with lines such as “To whatever extent you hate yourself, it isn’t enough”. And the line “In our basements, we all look so bored/We’ve never seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” represents exactly why this is a band that needs to be watched closely.
“A Pot in Which to Piss” begins with a reading from Jefferson Davis and then immediately goes into the singer softly telling us about his high school over very minimal instrumentation. The music picks up a little in the following verses, turning into a early punk-styled epic featuring several lines, such as “You ain’t never been no virgin, kid, you were fucked from the start”, that would fill Kurt Cobain with envy. And then seemingly out of nowhere comes a Jerry Lee-influenced piano and that is when the music slows back down and the saxophone comes in. Clocking in at over 8 minutes, if this album is their Born to Run, then this song is their “Jungleland”.
“This is a war we can’t win/After 10,000 years, it’s still us against them/And my heroes have always died at the end/So who’s going to account for these sins?”. These lines begin “Four Score and Seven”, which starts out as a piano-heavy ballad and features some excellent harmonica playing in the first part of the song as well. I detect hints of Dylan and Kristofferson at times in this song, which eventually picks up to feature a brass band before transforming into a Bat Out of Hell-styled hard rocking epic during the song’s second half.
“Them from ‘Cheers'” features a slight country flavor, complete with fiddle and it is without a doubt my favorite track on the album. In the disguise of a drinking song, it sums up the life of today’s teens in just a few minutes and may even be the defining track of the album which is in essence a very dark and pessimistic celebration of youth. It may even be the best song I’ve heard yet this year.
“To Old Friends and New” is a duet with Cassie Ramone of the modern indie rock girl group The Vivian Girls. The song deals with a troubled relationship and is a definite change of pace from the rest of the album. Or is it about the Civil War? Like many of the songs on here, parts of it can be interpreted either way. Take this, for instance: “Like the time traveler who killed his grandfather, these cycles are bringing me down/We could build a nice life together if we don’t kill each other first/Are you just too fucked up to understand me or is it the other way around?/Maybe it’s both, and I just don’t know which is worse.”
“…And Ever” is simply a reprise of “Titus Andronicus Forever”, but this time done as a Danny & the Juniors-styled ’50s rock number. This is followed by another Abraham Lincoln quote.
The 14-minute-plus “The Battle of Hampton Roads” closes the album. The opening verses directly compare our modern lives to the lives of “our forefathers” before becoming even more pessimistic than the rest of the album, almost going into Roger Waters territory (“Some days wanna give a little less than it’ll take/Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?/Is there a boy in this town thats not exploding with hate?”). We also get the second of the album’s direct references to Springsteen. The singer gets more and more emotional as the song goes on and it makes for one hell of a listening experience. The track goes on for a little too long at the end, although I gotta admit that hearing a bagpipe solo on a rock album is refreshing.
I can’t recommend this album highly enough and all I can say is that you should check it out. In a day and age where we go years between great concept albums (the last great one I heard prior to this year was Southern Rock Opera), we have had not one, but two already. This band will never get airplay anywhere and teenage girls will never hang up posters of them in their bedrooms, but for those of us who like real music, welcome to the future of rock and roll.
Theme From “Cheers” by Titus Andronicus