Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Titus Andronicus The Most Lamentable Tragedy

I really didn’t think that The Most Lamentable Tragedy was ever going to happen. More than two years ago, I talked to Patrick Stickles, and he laid out the plan: A full-length rock opera and accompanying movie, one that alludes to X-Men and The Matrix while telling a sprawling epic poem about manic depression. Stickles seemed like he was at the end of his rope with the music business (and, not incidentally, the music press), and he was selling stuff in the band’s online store to finance the opera’s creation even though he was, at the time, on the same record label as Vampire Weekend and Adele. Talking to me and a couple of curious random onlookers, he laid out the story’s entire plot, act by act. It promised to be a vast undertaking, a vision no right-thinking band manager would encourage a guy like Stickles to see through. On “Dimed Out,” Stickles comes pretty close to breaking character to address exactly this: “I don’t chase after clocks or calendars / I bow down not to masters, gods, nor managers.” Then, later: “I’m an impatient underdog indivisible / And my challengers are talentless imbeciles.” There’s something deeply quixotic about the entire undertaking: The sort of punk band who plays midsized clubs taking almost four years to put together a huge, pessimistic, difficult narrative about its frontman’s mental health struggles! With strings! And now that it exists in the world, The Most Lamentable Tragedy stands as a rebuke to any of the talentless imbeciles who might’ve doubted it. TMLT is not an easy record to wrap your mind around. But once you start the work of unraveling it, it is a motherfucker.

If you want, you can listen to The Most Lamentable Tragedy as a collection of straight-up rock songs. In fact, maybe that’s what you should do. There are a fuckload of great ones here. As a straight-up rock band, Titus have few peers. They do surging triumphant glory better than anyone else on the face of the earth, translating punk rock sonics into arena rock scope without losing one iota of ferocity. TMLT has Stones slither-boogie, Springsteen piano-bursting grandeur, Replacements stagger-swagger, Thin Lizzy twin-lead melodic grace, Pogues Irish-diaspora gurgle-blues, Jawbreaker cathartic clangor, and a whole lot else going on. It has songs — “Mr. E Mann,” “Fatal Flaw,” the non-Daniel Johnston “I Lost My Mind” — that could’ve easily become FM-radio staples during a more guitar-friendly age. It has Stickles’ voice in fervid, berserk top form throughout; it has been many years since a punk singer has displayed his gift for zealous, wild-eyed abandon. And even more than the last three Titus albums, TMLT has so much going on melodically that it would be easy to forget you were listening to a punk rock band if Stickles’ voice wasn’t there to remind you. New collaborator Owen Pallet has given the album some amazingly smart and sprightly string arrangements. It’s rare to hear strings on a rock song that stick with the tempo rather than just stuffing the songs with forced grandeur, but Pallett finds ways to keep the songs moving rather than weighing them down. And those arrangements, combined with generous helpings of piano and organ and saxophone and tingly xylophone noises, push TMLT away from the guitar-bass-drums tradition and toward a sort of orchestral rock immensity that’s not quite like anything I’ve ever heard. As an album of straight-up rock songs, TMLT is right up there with Screaming Females’ Rose Mountain as one of the year’s best.

But Patrick Stickles has no interest in letting us hear TMLT as an album of straight-up rock songs. This isn’t a David Comes To Life situation where you can dig deep into the narrative if you want or you can just process it the way you’d process any great rock album. TMLT wears its narrative on its sleeve. The album is full of drone interludes and extended silences. (Two of the album’s 29 tracks are pure silence, and one of those pauses lasts longer than a minute.) There’s a choral rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” and another choral track that flips a catholic hymn so it’s about an Egyptian sun god. It ends with a seven-minute Daniel Johnston tribute, played on chord organ and recorded on cassette, about why you shouldn’t kill yourself after all. If you wanted to hear TMLT as a straight-up rock album, you’d have to remove nearly 10 of its 29 tracks, something that would be impossible on vinyl or on the NPR stream that you’ll find below. And even the songs themselves are arranged to keep you on your toes; they come in quick 45-second bursts or in extended eight-minute falling-apart vamps. At first, I thought this was irritating — an indulgent example of a frontman who won’t stop getting in his own way. And maybe it is that. But there’s also something beautiful into Stickles’ refusal to setting into his assigned role as Maker Of Rock Songs. He is wrestling with messy, terrifying, nearly-impossible-to-express things, and he is not going to let any of his work fade into the background.

TMLT tells the story of a depressed, bedraggled, beaten-down narrator, one who first fell into the system of institutionalization at age four and who faces an unremittingly bleak existence. Eventually, though, he meets someone who looks just like him, an immediate tipoff that we’re looking at a Narrator-And-Tyler-Durden situation. And this mystery friend teaches the narrator to embrace the chaos of his life, to not mind losing his mind. There’s a love story, an inevitable unraveling of that love story, and possibly a plot to assassinate Ronald Reagan. It ends in death, and that’s not a surprise, either; the album’s title lets you know that going in. Within that narrative frame, there’s even more going on: References to old Titus songs, repeating themes, musical allusions. Patrick Stickles sings from the points-of-view of a few different characters. They’re reflections of his own point of view, and it’s rarely entirely clear which is which. Parts of “Fired Up” seem to be about looking for escape within punk rock, something that fits Stickles’ own narrative but maybe not those of his characters: “They call it a perverted dream / I call it an emerging scene.” The 10-minute “More Perfect Union” starts out as a Pogues pastiche, an Irish immigrants’ song that works as an extended allegory about leaving an intolerable homeland in hopes of finding solace in mysterious faraway places. Later on, he straight-up covers the Pogues, a band with whom he once toured and who he then publicly denounced as remote rock stars. It’s just a lot.

Around the time the album leaked, Stickles posted all of its lyrics on Genius, along with extensive annotations. You can easily lose an entire afternoon delving into everything there, and you can still walk away feeling that you don’t understand the album, or that you’re getting some key ideas wrong, as I doubtless did in that last paragraph. This album is work; it’s a text that demands to be parsed. But within that text, you’ll find some emotional kick-you-in-the-gut stuff. You’ll find Stickles describing what it’s like to be a kid facing adults’ ideas of mental illness in ways that will just destroy anyone with a sense of empathy: “They built their perfect prison and they locked me inside / I cried, ‘This is so wrong,’ they said, ‘It’s alrght.'” He takes on institutions in ways that remind you how powerfully, catastrophically wrong those institutions are: “When they went off to try to / Criticize you and chastise you / Baptize you and then lobotomize you / Isn’t it true, ooh ooh that special school.” And the vividness of that language, along with the fact that those words are all couched in kickass punk rock songs, means The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a challenge that’s worth taking. It’s rare that an artist demands this much of his audience. It’s even more rare that the demand lead to anything anywhere near this rewarding. TMLT is work worth doing.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is out 7/28 on Merge. Stream it below.