When Titus Andronicus announced their fifth LP A Productive Cough, it almost felt as if it was accompanied with a warning. This album would showcase a specific side of the project, with ringleader and sole songwriter Patrick Stickles digging into a mellower, more ballad-oriented approach while eschewing the anthemic aggression that’s long been the band’s calling card. Stickles has also noted — rightfully — that the kind of songs he’s writing now have always been a part of the Titus playbook, and that any of the songs on A Productive Cough could, more or less, fit on any preceding Titus collection. It’s just that this was the focus this time around. This would be the “different” Titus Andronicus album.
The distinction is both true and false. A Productive Cough does mostly do away with any semblance of the punk banger — its main uptempo jam, the eight minute “Home Alone,” is more like a heavy and swaggering piece of classic rock. But overall, it feels like a logical destination if you’ve been following Titus’ arc, as they’ve gradually leaned harder on the “rock” half of “punk rock.” These kinds of songs have always been in the Titus canon, but what Stickles has done here is craft a roadworn comedown followup to the sprawling rock opera he released in 2015, The Most Lamentable Tragedy. And it feels like he’s setting the scene for a new chapter of Titus.
More so than the slower BPMs, there are two qualities that are striking upon first listening to A Productive Cough. The first is scope: After something as expansive as The Most Lamentable Tragedy, streamlining is one of the only sensible directions. (Something similar happened between Titus’ totemic 2010 LP The Monitor and its slicker 2012 successor, Local Business.) When we last heard from Stickles, he was giving us a 90-minute opus about manic depression. By Titus standards, A Productive Cough initially comes across almost like an EP in comparison — seven tracks, one of them a cover and one of which Stickles doesn’t sing on at all. It could tempt you to take the title seriously: an abrupt utterance, getting something out of the system but ending up with a new album as a result.
Of course, A Productive Cough may only have seven songs, but it also clocks in at the very standard run time of 47 minutes. Which brings us to the second distinguishing quality about the album: In many ways, this is the first time Stickles has captured a particular version of the Titus live experience. A Productive Cough’s songs often let their long lengths unspool casually, in a loose and vamp-y manner that recalls the more discursive moments in a Titus show. It’s there in “Real Talk,” a song that sounds like the Waterboys went to New Orleans and got tanked and subsequently led a pub singalong about America being completely fucked. (There’s also a hype man on the track. It’s wild.)
Onstage, Stickles has been known to spontaneously pay tribute to some of his classic rock forebears, often tackling very famous hits. (I’ve personally seen Titus Andronicus cover “Comfortably Numb,” “Dancing In The Dark,” “Glory Days,” and “Gimme Shelter,” amongst plenty others.) On A Productive Cough, Stickles takes on one of the most iconic songs of all time, offering up his “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone” rendition of the Dylan classic. Where the song should end, it goes on into a somewhat hilarious call-and-response refrain about how he actually feels like the Rolling Stones. “I’m feeling like Mick Jagger/ Do you feel like Mick?” he says at first, but he also eventually finds room for “…and don’t forget Darryl Jones!”
It’s the exact kind of thing the band would do live, and moments like that give a lot of A Productive Cough a sort of late-night, drunken jam vibe, like Titus moved out of the DIY spaces to set up shop in an old dive where people can still smoke inside.
All of this might make it seem as if A Productive Cough is tossed-off, but it isn’t. Across these seven tracks, there’s a decent amount of diversity yet they do come together into a cohesive and full work. There’s the aforementioned state-of-the-world boogie of “Real Talk” next to the sparse prettiness of “Crass Tattoo” next to the guitar solo fireworks and constantly intensifying vocal wails of “Home Alone” next to closer “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco),” which sounds like walking home at 5AM even if it’s about rote patterns and finding the spark to push through the same old shit each day.
Then there are the album’s two peaks: “Above The Bodega (Local Business)” and “Number One (In New York).” The former again harkens back to the Stones — it’s a dusty conversation akin to “Waiting On A Friend,” just swapping out the wistfulness for a bit of jocularity about the special bond New Yorkers have with their corner bodega. As for the latter, it’s one of the best songs Stickles has ever written.
“Number One (In New York)” doesn’t really change. When it begins, you might think there are about to be four different passages, a huge chorus and an epic outro. But it doesn’t have that, at least not in the way we think of with past Titus sagas. It builds up from the same persistent piano figure for almost the entirety of its eight minutes, steadily piling on new elements until the song itself sounds like it has to break, that there’s no way it could survive another minute of new instrumentation finding its way in. Then, when it finally does, it’s sublime — Stickles’ stream-of-consciousness tumbling into a climactic refrain. It’s one of the most “ballad-y” songs on A Productive Cough, and it’s one of the most truly beautiful tracks Stickles has ever written, but it’s a ragged, roaring kind of beauty.
Thematically, A Productive Cough is definitely more a collection of discrete ideas than the narrative- and concept-driven masterworks of Stickles’ career, The Monitor and The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Yet there’s a loose connectivity across a few songs that conjures up New York life. “Number One (In New York)” calls out to (or from) other places but is also reflected through home. “Above The Bodega (Local Business)” is about a key element of New York culture; Stickles’ bemusing version is the understanding you strike with your bodega dude where he doesn’t judge you for buying beer in the middle of the day. “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco)” perfectly sums up the soul-numbing drain that this greater metropolitan area’s collapsing network of trains gifts us with day-in, day-out. And there’s some resonance in Stickles choosing to cover “Like A Rolling Stone” specifically, nodding to a bygone and mythical era of New York.
It’s stuff Stickles has written about before. The most enduring song on Local Business is “In A Big City,” a raucous but infectious song that effusively chronicles the experience of being from “one side of the river” and finding yourself one of countless transplants living amongst the skyline you used to see from so far away. There was an exhilaration in that reckoning, a sense of newness. On the other hand, the New York glimpses on A Productive Cough are tonally in line with the album overall: Weathered, more mature, patient enough to consider something small and inconsequential and find the beauty within it.
That’s a major takeaway from the latest Titus offering: Patrick Stickles is getting older. For years now, he’s discussed rock ‘n’ roll as a young person’s game. Around the time of The Most Lamentable Tragedy — which was released on his 30th birthday — he insinuated that it could be Titus’ pseudo-self-titled grand finale. And now in “Number One (In New York),” he sings “Eleven years in/ And trying to stay relevant,” betraying the same self-awareness he displayed when questioning exactly how long you can be a punk rocker touring the country in a van.
In a surprise twist, this makes “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone” feel less like a slightly tongue-in-cheek but heartfelt tribute and more like a subtle mission statement hidden within A Productive Cough. Steadily, as the years have rolled on, Titus have been creeping up to that point where they drop the “punk” prefix altogether and are simply a raw, rollicking rock band. Will there be some faster and angrier material on the next Titus album? Who knows. Probably. But A Productive Cough feels like a transition setting us up for a different version of Titus Andronicus, one with continuity relative to their earliest days but one that’s also growing up. Stickles might still occasionally unleash a bit of rage, but the lasting impression his newest album leaves is that he’s plotting a course towards what an older and slightly wiser Titus Andronicus might sound like.
A Productive Cough is out now via Merge.