The Monitor Turns 10

The Monitor Turns 10

It still sounds preposterous: a ragged New Jersey band, with a name taken from Shakespeare and a debut album citing one of the most famous Seinfeld episodes, returning with a sophomore effort that featured epic, multi-part songs loosely aligning Civil War imagery with personal anguish and generational ennui, which then turned out to be one of the great rock records of this century. It sounds like something that couldn’t possibly go right. It almost sounds like satirical indie rock Mad Libs.

And yet this is what happened when Titus Andronicus released The Monitor 10 years ago today. That ragged New Jersey band returned with a strange premise that worked well as a headline but easily could have collapsed into gimmick, and instead it resulted in one of the most vital rock albums in recent memory. Inspired by the 19th century and inextricably rooted in the 21st, The Monitor is an album out of time, so feverishly beloved that in its small way it could go down as a classic rock album, period, in an era where people just weren’t making those kinds of albums anymore. Nobody else can say that but Titus Andronicus. Nobody else was even trying.

The Monitor was a bold move for Titus’ second outing, the sort of gambit that comes from kids knowing they might not ever get another shot and throwing absolutely everything they have into the work in front of them. It is, by nature, excessive: 10 tracks and just over an hour in length, an album on which the rare songs south of five minutes function more like interstitials. It was the sound of Patrick Stickles wrangling with everything going on his life at that moment, but then using a historical prompt to render something personal and locally specific as a universal Big Statement — the kind that compels people to forge deep connections to the music, that garners enough hyper-passionate adoration to become a cult classic.

The Monitor was partially inspired by, of all things, Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. One story in particular struck Stickles, the Battle Of Hampton Roads, which would soon serve as the namesake for The Monitor’s colossal closing track. An important battle in the Civil War and in history in general, Hampton Roads entailed two technologically advanced warships fighting for two days, ending with each side declaring victory when neither had actually won. The Union’s ship was called the Monitor. With that, Stickles had his almost mythological name for an album that would catalog the battles we fight with each other, how nobody ever comes out victorious, how none of us end up any happier. It was a startlingly useful metaphor for the stalemates that continually plague our lives — not least of all the ones we end up in with ourselves.

This was, no doubt, Stickles’ handiwork, just as Titus has always been no matter how often he refers to it as a band. But on The Monitor, he also wove other perspectives into the fold. A collection of guests appeared between songs, everyone from his high school teacher to Craig Finn playing Civil War-era figures turned existential chorus. Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner duetted with Stickles on “To Old Friends And New,” her voice sounding like the angelic salve Stickles’ worn howl was fighting so hard for across the album. Altogether, the detailed tapestry of voices and references gave the album a sense of greater scope. From the very first moments, The Monitor announced itself as a work of runaway ambition.

About those first moments: For such a small name in the grand scheme of rock history, Titus Andronicus came through with one of the genre’s all-time classic album openers on The Monitor. “Are we ready to go?” a voice asks, answered by an excerpt of an Abraham Lincoln speech that ends, “As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.” Then, “A More Perfect Union” roars to life. Stickles is soon making his way through an array of references and places immediately recognizable to those from the northeastern corners of the United States: the Fung Wah bus, the Garden State Parkway, Fenway, a cruel New England winter and a brutal Somerville summer.

The Monitor originated with Stickles in exile, having relocated to the outskirts of Boston for a relationship that didn’t work out. But from the album’s opening lines — his immediately frayed proclamation that “There’ll be no more counting the cars on the Garden State Parkway” — there is a battle that’s been going on already. The landscape of “A More Perfect Union” is familiar to anyone who’s grown up in these small towns and spent too much time on buses in transit between them, from Tri-State to New England to the city. If The Monitor deals with conflicts between and within ourselves, it has to cover our uneasy relationship with the places we came from.

There’s no shying away from the influence here. “A More Perfect Union” is the kind of song you think has reached its peak several times over, and then it somehow just keeps going higher. It charges right out of the gates, and the first of those climaxes comes at the end of its first passage, when Stickles sings: “Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die!” If The Monitor was going to deal with the iconography of suburban angst, and if it happened to be written by a man from New Jersey, it had to nod to Bruce Springsteen.

Stickles is a learned scholar of pop culture as much as literature and philosophy. He always knows what he’s playing with. He might’ve grown up in Springsteen’s state, on Springsteen’s music, but in his hands, on “A More Perfect Union” and across The Monitor, these tropes get broken down and recontextualized. “A More Perfect Union” is part “Thunder Road” curtain rise, a manifesto setting the stakes for what’s to come. Here, it’s not so much a depleted sense of escapism but a desperate search for something more, even after decades of rock music promised but still couldn’t deliver for our protagonist. This time there’s not even the romanticism of pulling away in an old car with Mary. By 2010, it’s just bus rides carrying you back and forth, trapped on a circuit between hometowns you wanted to leave behind and new towns you don’t feel at home in.

“A More Perfect Union” is also part “Born To Run,” the song it nihilistically paraphrases. In the face of a mundane future — in Stickles’ case, figuring he’d go to grad school and become a teacher after releasing the first Titus album, 2008’s The Airing Of Grievances — the song has all the abandon of someone trying to create a new life for themselves. It’s a quintessential facet of life in a small town in the long shadows of theoretical transformation waiting in nearby cities, a love/hate dynamic with our origins, recognizing it formed us but not knowing how and when to let go. The distance between home and Massachusetts and something else supposedly on the horizon, the miles of the interstates traveled in “A More Perfect Union,” are all recognizable. These are eternal American stories, and another young man trying to find his place in them. Stickles was 25 when The Monitor came out, the same age Springsteen was when Born To Run came out. This fact is probably not lost on Stickles.

It’s hard not to belabor the importance of “A More Perfect Union” when discussing The Monitor — it has become Titus Andronicus’ crowning achievement. It’s always a gigantic moment towards the end of a Titus set, even (maybe more so) all these years later. Stickles, always aware (and/or wary) of his ranking in the indie sphere, proudly introduced it at a Titus show some years ago by mentioning its video had recently hit one million views on YouTube. He knows the power of the song. But part of that power is also how it perfectly set up the rest of The Monitor.

From there, The Monitor was an album raging against its confines and circumstances. It used classic rock and punk and the vocabulary of each to voice a specifically millennial breed of angst. The enemy was everywhere, and they could be institutional ills plaguing America for decades or the post-9/11 climate or the dead-end hopes of ’90s kids graduating into the Great Recession. Almost every song is intricately orchestrated, shifting through multiple passages with a careful distribution of dramatic payoffs, yet still played ferociously. The whole thing sometimes feels like a meta appropriation of classic rock excess, translated into the language of people raised on VFW hall high school gigs.

The album wound up bearing many several Titus standards beyond “A More Perfect Union,” and each came with rallying cries that would be sung back at the band for the subsequent decade. There was the third iteration of “No Future,” tumbling into the unlikely scream-along chant of “You will always be a loser!” Similarly, there’s Stickles, sounding like he’s drowning in the noise of his own song, spitting “It’s still us against them!” over and over at the end of “Four Score And Seven” before admitting, “And they’re winning.” Elsewhere, there was the more meditative, old-beyond-our-years “To Old Friends And New,” in which the refrain “It’s all right/ The way that you live” offers one of The Monitor’s only true attempts at reconciliation, whether with others or yourself.

Otherwise, there is a whole lot of defeat to be had. “Theme From ‘Cheers'” takes Stickles’ love of sitcoms and inverts the warmth of a place where everybody knows your name to a cautionary tale. The lyrics flit between directionless youthful misadventure and/or downward spirals and images of growing old in the same old town, drinking with the same old people. “What the fuck was it for anyway?” an imagined elder Stickles asks.

“The thesis [of The Monitor] is that we all have to be accountable for our happiness,” Stickles told a local Greenpoint publication back in the day, when he was newly a resident of the north Brooklyn neighborhood. “Our hero — well, it’s me, but I’ll refer to him in the third person — he’s not necessarily that happy with himself but he finds solace in the self/other relationship, and is able to define himself positively only in relation to others who he defines negatively. The character feels a lot of angst, and ennui, and is able to pass the buck onto the enemy that we hear so much about throughout [the album]. But ultimately, in the end, he finds that’s what the other guys were doing. He finds that in the end, we’re all the same, we’re all slugging it out because it’s something to do, it’s easier than taking responsibility. In the end, nobody wins and nobody ends up making any progress, just like how the Monitor ultimately couldn’t destroy the CSS Virginia … Ultimately we can only be responsible for our own happiness, our own self-actualization or, if we choose, our own destruction.”

By the end of The Monitor, it isn’t really clear whether Stickles or his listeners could find that actualization in the moment. Across the album, there’s plenty of catharsis, both the aforementioned, defining moments but also in smaller turns: “I was born to die just like a man” concluding one part of “Four Score And Seven”; the Exile On Main St. piano breaks around the seven-minute mark in “A Pot In Which To Piss”; each new section of “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” somehow (ludicrously) feeling essential, belying the song’s mammoth 14-minute runtime. It’s like the final and most important words keep one-upping each other.

One of those lines that sticks in your head from the grand finale: “And so now when I drink, I’m going to drink to excess/ And when I smoke, I will smoke gaping holes in my chest/ And when I scream, I will scream until I’m gasping for breath,” Sitckles promises, as he talks of returning to New Jersey, giving up on the new life he once tried to build. The end of the end is a long plea, “Please don’t ever leave,” issued to the many adversaries we need to define ourselves against. Then there’s a bagpipe march that could be triumphal or funereal, before one more dueling guitar climax, and finally The Monitor collapses into a droning fadeout.

The Civil War conceit isn’t an art-rock frill but more so an establishment of the elemental aspects of The Monitor. A breaking and turning point inscribed in this country’s identity, in some ways left unresolved — a continuing war with ourselves in a scarred land. In that sense, The Monitor is perhaps even more potent today than it was in the immediate aftermath of the recession (or, if you’re around Stickles’ or my age, the disorienting years towards the end of college). Back then, it was a listless generation with the floor shifting below them, getting their own bombastic interpretation of highway songs, full of a contemporary fury. Now, listening to it gives you a soundtrack to a nation tearing itself apart from the inside, in more insidious and surreptitious ways. It’s the sound of poison in the bloodstream, not the sound of bloodshed on a battlefield.

Stickles never made another album like this. Perhaps learning from Springsteen once more, he probably had a sense that you don’t try to repeat this kind of project. Instead, what followed was the more streamlined — and very underrated — Local Business in 2013. Though that album was successful, Stickles took it as a major blow and disappointment when fans and critics didn’t connect to it with the same enthusiasm. (But, seriously, “In A Big City” and “Ecce Homo” are amongst his best songs.)

Local Business also, notably, didn’t have an overarching narrative to it. So for the next Titus album, he went big again: the “rock opera” The Most Lamentable Tragedy, in which Stickles offered some of his sharpest ragers and anthems (“Dimed Out,” “Fired Up,” really half the album) alongside poignant experiments (“More Perfect Union”) and… a cover of “Auld Lang Syne.” Perhaps this would be a good pattern to follow: an album flirting with uncontrolled-yet-electrified bloat while trying to get in every idea and every bit of music, followed by a relatively more contained endeavor. He sort of continued on this path, then following Tragedy with two smaller works, A Productive Cough in 2018 and An Obelisk last year.

In sum, it’s a rich catalog with Stickles’ finest work evenly spread out across it, but The Monitor still looms over everything. He is, as usual, more than aware of this. In our 2018 interview with Stickles around A Productive Cough, he talked about how Tragedy was a direct effort to unseat The Monitor after years of bristling that the latter remained the band’s most popular album. “If that didn’t do it, I can’t imagine what I could do now to correct that,” he said. “I guess I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder. But what good does it do for you to get mad, you know what I’m saying? This is one of the things about the artist’s life: You put yourself out into the world and you have certain dreams or aspirations about how it will be perceived, but ultimately, it’s the prerogative of the audience to decide how they’re gonna take it. That’s all there is to it.”

Stickles’ one-time frustrations are understandable enough — nobody really wants to be reminded of this great thing they did years ago when they are still young and growing as a writer. But in the end, he managed to do something few of his peers could do, something that he sure must’ve been aiming for back then: He made an album that entered the canon. Just last year, as the best-of-decade lists were rolling out here and on other sites, The Monitor appeared again and again. This is likely not surprising, but there weren’t a lot of other rock albums of its ilk listed nearby.

Maybe that’s still not enough to fill the void aching through The Monitor. Maybe nothing is — after all, if those enemies ever do leave, what do you have left? While the album never offered its own resolution, you get the sense that maybe Stickles got closer over time, growing just a bit older and just a bit wiser. Along the way he gave us an album that endures, one that spoke to a certain struggle of American life then and still does now. Because while those battles may be unending, there is still solace in hearing another person feel the same way. In the blown-out rock saga of The Monitor, you might still hear your own trials with home or yourself or the people in your life. And as with all the best albums, the words stay the same each time you press play through the years, but the answers might start to change.

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