When I first received An Airing of Grievances, the titanic 2008 debut by New Jersey reprobates Titus Andronicus, the album spent a solid and uninterrupted week in my stereo (“stereo,” in this instance, being a synecdochic device standing in place of my computer, portable MP3 player, and car). Gleaned from a veritable rogues’ gallery of punk and indie rock icons past and present, their sound simultaneously referenced the hungover vulnerability of The Replacements, the misanthropic abandon of Mclusky, the wry existential dread of Les Savy Fav, and the stark jaggedness of The Pixies at their most stripped-down. I connected instantly with the album because I felt like I’d loved it my entire life.
All this is to say that I came to sophomore effort The Monitor with high expectations, and I’ve fortunately come away with them well intact. Here, the band indulges in a concept album of sorts. While you won’t find an overarching narrative per se, The Monitor is steeped in the sights and sounds of the American Civil War (“The War of Northern Aggression,” to our readers south of the Mason-Dixon). To this end, the band manages a peculiar sort of temporal dislocation, blending antiquated battle hymns, speech excerpts from Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and folk instrumentation with thoroughly modern references to The Dark Knight and Scooby Doo. Indeed, while Titus Andronicus maintain much of the fuck-all intensity that made Grievances such a breathlessly compelling listen, there are also clear signs of growth on this album.
The production on The Monitor is a little neater. The ramshackle, sounds-like-it’s-recorded-live ambience of their first record has given way to a more polished sound that makes room for some of the guest players, who contribute horn arrangements, fiddling, and even bagpipes to various tracks. It’s an appropriate choice, given the group’s movement towards grander-scale compositions; most of the 10 tracks run between 5 and 14 minutes in length. But while the songs are stretched in length, Titus Andronicus rarely pause long enough for much in the way of noodling. Each song flits so briskly between movements that the listener feels whisked along on one hell of a wild journey, with each track inevitably delivering something worth waiting for.
Singer and principal songwriter Patrick Stickles is largely responsible for keeping these behemoths grounded in down-and-dirty punk rock. His snarling delivery and proclivity for cramming way too many syllables into a line go a long way toward maintaining a bracing sense of instability. The apogee of the album might come at the midpoint of “Four Score and Seven,” when a lulling brass-dominated waltz drops off the edge of a cliff into a barreling drum roll and an arena-ready guitar riff. A stream of white-hot invective spills out of Stickles like floodwaters breaking free from a collapsing dam: “Depraved and disgusting/ I spew like a fountain/ Debased, defaced, disgraced, and destroyed/ Most of all disappointed/ I say atop this mountain/As I urinate into the void.” The alternation between hard and soft consonant sounds and the tripping-head-first-down-a-mountain use of alliteration create a euphoric sense of entropy, as the song collapses towards its grand, rabble-rousing climax in which Stickles leads his partners in crime in a rousing battle cry of “It’s still us against them, and they’re winning.”
While I can’t say that I don’t miss the poignant, rough-shod belligerence of An Airing of Grievances, The Monitor more than cements Titus Andronicus’s place in the indie rock arena. At its best moments, it reminds you of just how durable — and dangerous — a beast like rock ‘n’ roll can still be.