Titus Andronicus could really give a fuck about degree of difficulty. Here’s how we know that Titus are one of our finest working bands: They can record an album of jaunty singalong beer-punk anthems about the vast indifference of the cold world. They can open things up with this line: “OK, by now I think we’ve established everything is inherently worthless / There’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” They can include a 10-minute song, an eight-minute one, and a couple that dance around the six-minute mark. And compared to what the band has done before, that album can come out sounding a bit slight, at least compared to what the band has done before.
The big problem with Local Business, Titus’s third album, isn’t the album’s fault, and it’s not really anything to do with the album itself. The problem is The Monitor, Titus’s 2010 sophomore LP and probably my favorite rock record of the last five years or so. There’s just no following The Monitor. It’s not possible. That’s the album where Titus showed that the fists-up Jersey basement-punk singalongs that I love so much could work as something bigger and deeper, covering vast swaths of musical and lyrical ground without sacrificing any of their from-the-gut immediacy. It’s what would happen if the Bouncing Souls, in their prime, decided that they could be the Who, in their prime, and it somehow links frontman Patrick Stickles’s breakup with the American Civil War without making it sound like that ridiculous a stretch. And so when the band follows that up with an album that’s merely very, very good — as opposed to life-changing great — it registers, at first, as something like a disappointment. That’s not fair to the band or the album, and it’s also not fair to the listener, since it throws a ton of expectation-weight all over what would otherwise be a deeply pleasurable listening experience. But it’s the sort of thing that I, as a music dork, just can’t stop myself from doing.
So here’s the good news: Local Business is an extremely accomplished rock album from a band who knows what it’s doing. It has its own overarching themes (loneliness and isolation, mostly), but it’s not a sweeping concept album the way The Monitor was. And once you get over the fact that it’s not The Monitor, there’s a weird joy-relief hybrid in realizing that Titus is built to last; that they can simply knock out a smart and impactful rock record without attempting to rewrite the rule-book every time out. And that’s not to say that the album doesn’t have moments that stick in your gut. That opening line is basically Stickles’s pessimistic, damn-near-Dostoevskian version of “teenage angst has paid off well / now I’m bored and old.” “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood Of Detritus” opens with a vignette in which Stickles watches someone die in a highway car crash, and then watches the rest of the cars on the road treat that death as a personal inconvenience: “They get a long look at the tow truck as they sit and grit their teeth / Hating that which comes between them and their coffee.” Stickles isn’t exactly shying away from big ideas here.
And the band hasn’t lost its charge, either. The Titus of Local Business have slowed their attack, almost imperceptibly, the way punk bands almost always do when they hit album number three. They show a serious command of hearty Replacements chest-wailers, of triumphant Thin Lizzy guitar leads, of incandescently pounding E Street Band piano-solos. For the most part, the songs aren’t as immediately catchy or thickly arranged as the ones on The Monitor, and we don’t get anything like Jenn Wasner’s showstopping guest vocal on “To Old Friends And New.” But that’s not to say that these aren’t catchy songs with big scopes; they are. So maybe it’s best to think of Local Business as the Jackie Brown to The Monitor’s Pulp Fiction: The quietly powerful follow-up to the attention-grabbing watershed, the one that proves its makers are grown-ups in it for the long haul. And, I mean, have you watched Jackie Brown lately? That movie fucking rules. It holds up, years after the context has faded. If I were a betting man, I’d say Local Business will do the same, and that’s all we can ask of it.
This is also, I should note, a Premature Evaluation more premature than most. Titus albums don’t reveal themselves completely at first, and there are a couple of big moments that still have to happen. For one thing, I haven’t heard it yet with a lyric sheet in my hand. Stickles is a lyrics guy, but he bellows in such a throat-shredded wail that his words can be tough to make out. When I finally get to hear the album with lyrics intact, I’m guessing that a few more moments will stick with me as vividly as that car-crash description. And my whole Local Business experience also won’t be complete until I see the band live, after the kids in the crowd have had a chance to hear those big choruses. Titus manage audience singalongs better than maybe any other band working today, with the possible exception of Fucked Up. These are meaningful songs that mean more when you’re in a sweaty mass yelling those words back at the guy who wrote them. That’s part of the reason The Monitor kept sounding better for me months after its release. This is a band that needs context, and that context is, as of now, incomplete. So just know this: They’ve made a very strong follow-up to an album that nobody could’ve been expected to follow-up. If it sounds, to you, a bit like a let-down or a step back, it’s not the album’s fault. It’s yours, and it’s mine.
Local Business is out 10/23 on XL.