“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
“The songs on Local Business aim to make explicit the implications of the first two LPs, that the inherent meaninglessness of life in an absurd universe gives the individual power to create their own values and their own morality.”
– Patrick Stickles, Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus front man Patrick Stickles opens Local Business with the air of a college professor picking up a lecture after a mid-class break: “Okay I think by now we’ve established/ Everything is inherently worthless/ And there’s nothing in the universe/ With any kind of objective purpose.” And why not? What have the previous two Titus Andronicus albums been if not an object lesson in how to live in a world devoid of meaning? An Airing of Grievances was the soundtrack to a young man coming to grips with not only the inevitability of death, but the death of the soul through the slow-grind of drudgery, of years spent “pushing a boulder up on a hill.” It’s about the sudden realization that the universe doesn’t give a shit about you, and if it ever does stop to take notice… well, then you’re in for some real trouble.
If Grievances was a barroom brawl against the absurdity of existence, The Monitor escalated the conflict into a full-blown military campaign. The world they faced was every bit as bleak and unforgiving, with enemies on all sides and defeat and humiliation a foregone conclusion, but this time the group had something worth fighting for. Beneath the layers of Civil War imagery and pop culture references lay an agonizing homesickness for New Jersey that gripped Stickles during his brief exile in Boston. Maybe human life is destined to be nasty, brutish, and short, but a home and community of friends can go a long way toward making it more bearable.
Local Business thrives on the same paradoxical mixture of hopelessness and joie de vivre that made Titus Andronicus’ previous efforts so irresistible. It’s nearly impossible to separate the album’s darkest moments from its brightest; thus, both the site of a grisly car wreck and a first meeting between Stickles and his infant nieces and nephews become grim reminders of mortality, while the bulimic cycle of binging and purging becomes an assertion of individual freedom in a hostile and oppressive world. It’s no exaggeration to say that the lyrics on this album are among the strongest of Titus Andronicus’ catalogue: Stickles deftly shifts from wry observation, to venomous self-loathing, to heartfelt sincerity, often within the space of a single song, while giving even greater attention to the sounds and textures of his words. His gift for stringing together complex sentences loaded with internal rhymes and rich alliterative patterns is excellent, on par even with Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. The first three tracks alone are a verbal banquet more profligate than anything else I’ve heard this year.
Musically, Local Business is a small movement away from The Monitor’s grandiosity. The departure of multi-instrumentalist Amy Klein likely contributed to the album’s comparatively stripped-down setup. The core five-piece band is only occasionally supported by a handful of guests, including Owen Pallett on violin, Eric DeLuca on keyboard, and Steven Harm (father to the band’s drummer Eric) on harmonica. While a smaller supporting cast results in shorter average song lengths, the longer tracks shift direction more radically than even the most complex tracks on their previous efforts. “My Eating Disorder” sets out on a straight enough path from the halting rhythm of its opening verses towards a sort of punk rock boogie-woogie, but it takes a sharp turn following a lengthy bridge into heavier terrain, arriving at last at a pounding and appropriately cataclysmic finale. The other two long tracks, “In a Small Body” and “Tried to Quit Smoking,” are similarly unpredictable, although with more mixed results: the lullaby-like back half of “Small Body” feels unnecessarily protracted, while the bluesy breakdown towards the end of “Smoking” fails to bring the much-needed sense of catharsis the song craves.
Local Business is an uneven record in comparison to the two that preceded it, owing to a slight loss of momentum in its back third, but the material that shines does so with an effulgent intensity that’s become par for the course with this group. Better than any other band currently operating, Titus Andronicus give voice to that corner deep inside of us that knows things are not and will never be okay, the part of us that knows there’s a hole in the center of everything so deep and vast that no amount of material prosperity or emotional comfort will ever be able to fill or cover over, the part of us that knows that no one gets out of here alive. The great genius of this band is that, in their hands, these truths are not a cause for despair, but for celebration. It’s a raucous reminder that we are all bound together by our shared helplessness, our shared frustration, our shared brokenness.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy. One need not imagine him alone.