I need rock music to matter. I also have to assume that Patrick Stickles, the lead singer and songwriter for Titus Andronicus, needs rock music to matter. Because over the course of four albums now, this still pretty young frontman has created some of the most sprawling, bombastic, heart-on-its-sleeve rock and roll in recent memory, and this band absolutely never feels like it’s holding back. Ok, maybe it felt a little like it was holding back on it’s last album, the more economical Local Business, which came in the wake of the hour-plus Civil War concept album from 2010, The Monitor, whose combination of scope and scrappy honesty made it an absolute mind-blower when I first heard it, and still remains one of the more thrilling rock albums of this decade. So it’s come as a relief hearing Titus Andronicus bite off more than anyone else could possibly attempt to chew with this latest album, a self-proclaimed rock opera in five parts that runs about 90 minutes in length.
Like most great rock operas, whatever The Most Lamentable Tragedy‘s story is supposed to be is a little foggy, but a lot of it seems to center around a character, who much like Stickles (who has struggled with bipolar disorder), is dealing with his own mental health issues. It’s the kind of subject that’s relatable to an extent, since we all go a little crazy sometimes, but at the same time it’s not something everyone has as much empathy for as they probably should, and thus fuels much of the album’s underlying alienation. It also fuels a kind of messiness that you would expect from an album with this much unbridled ambition, but there’s something about its emotional chaos that feels very focused and controlled, which I think may have something to do with the fact that Titus Andronicus had been playing a lot of these songs live before molding them into this overarching narrative. And sure, this approach can be a little cumbersome in spots, but at the same time evokes those big rock moments that I’m looking for. The most impactful of these happens early on in the album’s second disc, where the lurching “Funny Feeling” builds and builds in it’s dread and frustration as Stickles shouts “I’ve always had something in side of me!” before launching into the triumphant sing-along of “Fatal Flaw”. It’s one of my favorite moments on any album this year, and a reminder that yes, rock music can still be incredibly cathartic when you need it to be.
So basically, I do think that The Most Lamentable Tragedy is another ragged masterstroke on par with The Monitor. However, there’s so much here that I still feel a little weird writing this review, even though I bought it on its opening weekend (it’s fun that we get to say that for albums now, right?) and have been listening to it pretty consistently for about the past month. Yet I still feel like I haven’t spent enough time with it, and it’s that kind of commitment that will probably drive away anyone who hasn’t already committed to Titus Andronicus, which I can understand. They belong to a certain strata of impassioned, lyrics-heavy bands like The Hold Steady or The Mountain Goats where there’s a whole kind of mythology that runs throughout the entire discography, and simply cannot be summed up in a mere song or two. In a word, they’re the kind of band where you’re either all in, or you’re not. I, apparently seem to be into these kinds of artists, I suppose because I like to have a lot to latch onto with my rock bands, and I suppose I respond to these kinds of songwriters because much like any great author, they have a capacity to lend enough of themselves to their songs that it makes you feel just a little less alone when you’re listening to them. It’s a sensation I have to assume an outsider like Patrick Stickles feels when he’s listening to someone like Bruce Springsteen or Paul Westerberg, and it’s more than a little affecting hearing him pay that sensation forward on The Most Lamentable Tragedy.
Favorite Tracks: “I Lost My Mind”, “Fatal Flaw”, “Come On, Siobhan”