Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Enemy is Everywhere: Review of new Titus Andronicus album


"From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide."
Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838.

The crucial element missing from the progressive resistance to the George Bush era and the rise of the corporation was a meaningful soundtrack. Titus Andronicus, a fiery punk band from New Jersey, may not define themselves as activists (neither did Bob Dylan), but their second album, The Monitor, delivers a much-needed blistering rebuke to contemporary society.

For those of you who missed their 2008 debut, An Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus’ debut was packed with anthems about finding purpose in the doldrums of New Jersey. In their second record, they revisit that idea through the prism of the U.S Civil War. The album is fantastically ambitious, an adjective used to describe few major bands today; in fact, when asked to describe the album, front-man Patrick Stickles offered, “Through and through, it is a whole-hearted and potentially ill-advised grab for some sort of imaginary brass ring, the sound of a band desperate for success and defiantly unafraid of failure.”

The opening song, “A More Perfect Union” unleashes a torrent of emotions- distaste with culture, the depressing escapism of alcohol, and the difficulty of figuring out what exactly you’re looking for: “I didn’t want to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey,” to a musical background dripping with influences from Bruce Springsteen to Civil War melodies.

The second track, “Titus Andronicus Forever,” ends with a passage from a letter Lincoln wrote to his law partner in 1841: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheer face on earth.” This is a striking quote. First, you would think Lincoln said it during the Civil War, as the Union’s exhausted Commander-In-Chief. In fact, he was simply another 30-something lawyer struggling for meaning. Lincoln was deeply melancholy for much of his life, and was subject to tremendous mood swings even as president. Depression, when it strikes, is a major obstacle to most of us achieving our goals, as it often leads to unproductive feelings of self-pity and nihilism. Yet the same man who expressed his own sadness so dramatically went on to become not only a great president, but one of the most important figures in American history. It makes my own bouts with dark moods feel petty by comparison.

I love this album as a history lover and an activist. Nearly every sprawling track on the album starts or ends with a quote from Shakespeare, Lincoln, or Jefferson Davis. The album is titled after the U.S.S Monitor, the first ironclad ship commissioned during the Civil War. The fourteen-minute closing track, “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, is named for a naval battle involving the U.S.S Monitor in 1862. Who still writes fourteen minute epics? Who references history so effusively in their garage rock song? Who asks this much of their fans to simply get through the album? One terrible review I read didn’t even realize it was a Civil War concept album- I guess singing “Glory, glory, hallelujah” and tracks called “A More Perfect Union” and “Four Score Part Two” didn’t ring a bell. I think it’s great to ask people to think harder, and the demands of this album, musically and lyrically, are refreshing.

I agree with the album themes to an extent. On “Four Score Part Two”, Stickles rails,
“It’s still us against them, it’s still us against them, it’s still us against them, and they’re winning.” So true, but it’s not over yet, Patrick, it’s not over. Modern history has been a constant struggle for fulfill Tennyson’s exoneration, “Tis’ not too late to seek a newer world.” In the last century we as a people have emerged from the wreckage of the worst war in human history to expand the rights, opportunities and comforts of men and women all over the world. None of it is has come easy- the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the liberation of Africa and fight against apartheid, acceptance of gays, social welfare for the poor, a new middle class all over the world, medical and communications advances. ‘You’ve got to admit it’s getting better, all the time,’ as the rarely profound Paul McCartney would tell you. That’s why no matter how ‘bad’ things are, I tend to believe they will eventually get better, even if it very much still is us against them, and they’re winning.

During “No Future Part Three: No Escape From No Future”, the band harshly chants, “You will always be a loser!” a thematic reprise from their first album, though this time Stickles ends with a piercing yell, “And that’s ok!” Not only is it ok, but I’ll re-raise Stickles- the era of the loser is on its way out. Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic campaign theme from Slapstick, “Lonesome No More,” has been realized in the internet era. Never has it been easier in the history of human history to find people who look like you, think like you, share your values, enjoy the same music, root for the same teams, and just generally like you. Perhaps I’m conflating being a loser with isolation, but inasmuch as I’ve ever associated the link, we are entering a true “Lonesome No More” era.

If Titus Andronicus could pick one quote to define the album, it would probably be the chorus line from “Titus Andronicus Forever” (incidentally, also written on their t-shirt): “The enemy is everywhere, the enemy is everywhere. No one seems to be aware or care, but the enemy is everywhere.” They are right, of course, as cynics often are. But I’m simply not going to leave it at that gloomy message; I’m just too pumped up after listening to album. So I’ll counter with a verse that we all know and love, which just as easily could have fit with the spirit of the album, and which speaks to the effort we need to make as a society each day:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Robert Kennedy, Indianapolis speech, the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, April 4, 1968.