Titus Andronicus The Most Lamentable Tragedy

[Merge; 2015]

Styles: punk rock opera, alchemical allegory
Others: Hüsker Dü, The So So Glos, Spider Bags, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner

…which allows entrance, recirculation, back into the album’s opening drone, “The Angry Hour” (or, in a grander sweep, into debut album The Airing of Grievances); it’s a choice, a divergence that defines The Most Lamentable Tragedy either as the band’s oeuvre in concentration or as the retroactive grand finale of a tetralogy. Throughout TMLT, the band’s preferred acronym for the five-act opera, Patrick Stickles — not Our Hero, but The Artist, Our Hero’s allegorical-autobiographical source/creator — has left what one might be tempted to call Easter eggs, if such self-referentiality weren’t so completely integral to the appeal and genius of his work as (or in) Titus Andronicus. The album is a map leading to itself, to its predecessors (both +@’s earlier albums and its sleeve-worn influences), to a self-realization fraught with false hope, false starts, false redemption, but, ultimately, humble stability, a sort of peace.

Scratching just the surface of its recursive geography, TMLT contains: (1) Parts IV and V of the band’s “No Future” saga, basically bookending the two-disc work; (2) a sequel to/reworking of “I’m Going Insane,” from 2012’s Local Business; and (3) a lengthy Irish dirge, “More Perfect Union,” which almost completely (it’s missing an “A”) recycles the title of one of the band’s most popular songs. TMLT is bursting with such satisfying clues, a veritable Holy Blood, Holy Grail for the obsessive fan. Commenting on the flaws of such choices, “Stranded (On My Own)” has this to say: “Just take your Ritalins/ So you can play the old hits again.” It is the curse of the successful artist to hear desire for their proverbial “American Pie” chanted at them from an adoring crowd, just as it is the curse of the crowd to mistake an artist for a culture-generator. It’s often about that new shit for the artist, and it’s often about that classic shit for the fans. The artist’s most daring choice, one so often disregarded for the sake of comfort, is to make their best art yet, something redefining and revitalizing everything heretofore.

Aesthetically, TMLT is like a Greatest Hits album, the best of the band represented. Stickles et al. make precise musical and lyrical choices, even considering, for instance, the length of time, down to the second, that each of the two silent tracks should last or that certain key phrases should assume. Stickles is aware that his reputation precedes him and is intent on setting the record straight, resetting it in fact, while remaining loyal to those fans who want to see their compassion and dedication recognized. It’s as if the creator of your favorite ______ [insert film, book, etc.] accepted and integrated an entire fandom’s dreams into a work that, better than appeasing some need for representation in one’s hero’s work, succeeded entirely as its own beast. But just as often as TMLT feels like the Titus Andronicus record par excellence, it pushes and shoves at the boundaries of what such a record could or should conceivably sound like.

The first act is a sort of dark, magnetic, angry zone (beginning, after the opening instrumental, with chords developed straight from the rock opera history books). It’s an understandable, cathartic Titus Andronicus from which listeners can jump off into the more esoteric second act, the sweltering experimentation and strut of the third act, the dreamy pop-punk of the fourth act, or the unrivaled (anywhere in rock music, if you ask me) emotional intensity of the fifth act, along with the humming connective tissue filling out the album’s 29-track length. Songs call back to each of the three preceding albums, to influential musical literary ancestors, and are always in communication with their fellow TMLT tracks. “Lonely Boy” and “I Lost My Mind (+@)” are revisitations to the sort of desperate evocations of classic rock energy that made The Airing of Grievances so magical, while the third act’s “(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID” is a direct descendant of Local Business’s “My Eating Disorder.” “Fatal Flaw,” also in the third act, is a self-aware, modern “Sherry Darling,” where Springsteen’s overbearing stepmother character is replaced by Stickles’s ever-present Man-With-The-Drugs. “Mr. E. Mann,” with its preceding drone “The Magic Morning,” calls to mind Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a novel with themes quite relevant to the first act’s scene of institutionalization and the second’s lofty climes of life-affirmation.

The album, like The Monitor writ large, is a story that’s more complex than any rock opera yet composed, which reveals itself differently, more deeply, after numerous familiarizing listens. What sounded initially like Zen Arcade in the first act ends up being, by the seventh or seventeenth listen, a punk rock interpretation of Exile on Main Street; what seemed like The River in the second act ends up seeming more like a combination (thanks in part to Owen Pallett’s unmistakable violin) of Fucked Up and Arcade Fire — no, now like Lou Reed’s Berlin.

The only “failure” of The Monitor was its unlikely assimilation into the very bro-culture it thoroughly calls out. Something about Stickles’s choice to use the Civil War as a guiding metaphor must have been mistaken for a sort of underdog patriotism (searching Twitter around Independence Day will prove this). Even Local Business centerpiece “My Eating Disorder,” a fucking heart-wrenching memoir of mental illness, was met with fist pumps and mosh pits at shows. TMLT makes clearer who Stickles is singing for (how can you sing along to “Into The Void (Filler)” when you are an iteration of the Reagan for whom that song’s radical, ecoterrorist Reagan Hunter alter-ego is named?).

There is a spirit on TMLT that wants to both immortalize and destroy those “old hits” that “Stranded” mentions, a spirit from which the album’s narrative, thematic, and spiritual obsessions rises: duality, the doppelgänger, a dialectical representation of mania against depression, a failure to synthesize the two — to transcend — and a transcendence nevertheless in finding unity with the earth that one always comes crashing down to meet after a fall from flying too high. Stickles makes clear in the differences between the album’s stark opening (“No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant”) and the album’s epilogue (“Stable Boy”) that to live not in heaven, but on earth, is to live a choice: to freeze in a “dungeon” or to live with “the mother.”

And that mother, a figure likely borrowed from Crass’s Stations of the Crass opener “Mother Earth” (Crass references on the album are the most satisfying to locate, if only for the artfulness with which Stickles weaves them into his own work), is the same force in a different form, worshipped on the Catholic-gone-Pagan hymn “Sun Salutation,” the force of life, the “light’s power” as “Dimed Out” charismatically puts it. More than a male-female system (the album’s roles, including these elementals, can be performed by any gender), the sun and earth archetypes illuminating and grounding Our Hero form another dyadic relationship, another metaphorical split selfhood to unify. But like Our Hero and his “Lookalike,” a union of sun and earth, though they are a priori (as are all pairs or poles in some time or reality), would be catastrophic. A balance, a stability, must be found and actively kept, just as earthly life itself is beholden entirely to both earth and sun.

The contradiction sleeping and raging at the heart of Stickles’s essentially dialectical work is this: what has always been one cannot be again united; realization, not synthesis, is the only escape. That realization comes in the form of “Stable Boy,” a Daniel Johnston homage that, after the doomish, suicidal self-seeing of “No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming,” is a bath of hope, a simple, earthly love for oneself and one’s humanity, one’s human and animal family. A chastising Mother Earth: “No sleeping forever,” as if it were all a dream, and a near suicide can be gently brought back to waking life like a little boy late-sleeping away the day.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is the first alchemical punk rock opera. It is one angle of the story of humanity’s trying to know and live with itself, a portrait of mental illness reborn as a fable, a fantasy of just learning to live. Like alchemy, its results are not immediately forthcoming; they are seven-sealed, hermetic and coded, and what one brings to the work is just as vital as what its world has let fall to you. As “Stable Boy” guides us into the haze of what can only be sunlight, “A Moral,” the closing drone — a thin, insistent F — suddenly reveals itself naked, alone, as if it had been there throughout the entire album. The birds cawing just outside the dreamer’s winter window. The drone, eerily familiar, stops then. Are we to do it all again? Someone inhales…

Links: Titus Andronicus - Merge

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