Titus Andronicus – “The Monitor”

March 9th, 2010, the release date for Titus Andronicus’ second LP, The Monitor, marks the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, best known as the clash between the USS Virginia (or Merrimack) and the USS Monitor, and the first meeting of two ironclad warships in a naval battle.  In deriving the album’s name from this battle, releasing the album on its anniversary, and naming the epic, 14-minute closing track “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, Titus Andronicus seem to be investing this historic landmark with some symbolic meaning, presumably one with echoes of importance in the present.  To hear it in frontman Patrick Stickles’ own words, they used the Civil War as a thematic focus to illustrate “how the conflicts that led our nation into that great calamity remain unresolved, and the effect that this ongoing division has on our personal relationships and our behavior and how they’re all out to get us (or maybe not?) and yadda yadda yadda.”

This half-assed, self-deprecating approach to the idea of a “Civil War concept album” permeates The Monitor.  As appropriate as it is to have The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn read an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night,” there’s a gentle jab at self-serious, Burnsian documentaries in choosing Vivian Girls’ Cassie Ramone to read a Jefferson Davis speech in between songs.  Not to say that Titus Andronicus think that Ken Burns’ The Civil War is silly—in fact, Stickles has mentioned that Burns’ film inspired him to write the album—but Civil War reference points in the lyrics are more often run through Stickles’ angst machine and used to comment on modern suburban life than on actual historical occurrence.

The laid back game of fast-and-loose that Stickles’ plays with the details of history in The Monitor’s lyrics are a part of what makes it such a fantastic album—a fresh, energetic piece of work rather than a bloated, overly ponderous historical commentary.  Titus Andronicus’ first album, The Airing of Grievances, had a DIY punk ethos, it had glimmering shoegaze guitars, it had drunken barroom singalongs and screamed “Fuck Yous!”, it had highbrow cultural references (Shakespeare, existentialist literature, Breughel), and it had nihilism, suburban ennui, and boatloads of angst.  The Civil War serves less as a defining element for The Monitor and more as just another ingredient thrown into the fascinating and hugely enjoyable Titus Andronicus stew.  Sometimes the historical excerpts are used more for mood than anything else; the sense of doom drawn from the fact of a county tearing itself apart trying to stay united is quite well-suited to Titus Andronicus’ music, which, at its best, gives a feeling of something akin to imminent apocalypse.

Consider the quote from Abraham Lincoln that opens the album, given at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois in 1838, one of Lincoln’s earliest public addresses:

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic 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.”

As the excerpt is read, droning guitars build up, and the rest of the band explodes as soon as the quote finishes.  I grinned to myself upon first listen to this opening, and I’ve done the same nearly every time I’ve listened to it since; the sweepingly romantic, near-cathartic badassery of Lincoln’s words combined with good old rock and roll was enough to hook me in and keep me there, grinning and headbanging, for the rest of the album.  The Lincoln speech, though it occurred some thirty years before the war itself, serves as a sort of prophetic prologue to the album, and the war itself; we were, indeed, the authors of our own destruction.  But the more important effect of these words is their visceral sense of drama and violence, which fits Titus Andronicus so well.  (Also, can you imagine Barack Obama saying “we will live forever or die by suicide?” Times have changed.)

After a verse, already steeped in New Jersey geographical referents, Stickles screams, “because tramps like us, baby we were born to die!” and a blistering guitar lick enters.  These first two minutes of “A More Perfect Union” are a pretty accurate microcosm of the rest of the album; there’s countless references, to Northeastern geography, a historical icon and a rock and roll hero, there’s ass-kicking instrumentals, and there’s plenty of blood and high drama.  Hopefully, this also illustrates just how fun this album is.  On The Airing of Grievances, a similar set of elements coalesced into something that was, despite being “fun” in an inebriated, punching-holes-through-walls sort of way, much more angry and stark.  The Monitor has all that, but it leaves you with a happy tint of communalism-through-desperation.  There are cries of “rally around the flag”, and many more group singalongs than before, but most importantly there’s the sense that a huge group of people went into making this album.  Titus Andronicus have always had a revolving-door policy when it comes to members, but this album also features local bigpipers and brass players, the aforementioned indie pals playing historic characters, the vocal contribution of Wye Oak’s incredible Jenn Wasner on “To Old Friends and New,” and the behind-the-scenes recording work by countless friends and fellow musicians.

The sheer amount of stuff that The Monitor contains could lead it to feel overwrought or distended.  Instead, Titus Andronicus’ off-the-cuff wit, heart-on-bloodstained-sleeve emotion, and play-like-you’ve-got-a-gun-to-your-head energy let them pull it off with a charming, glorious messiness.  Out of ten songs, five are at least seven minutes long, filled with mini-movements, tempo changes, battle-march interludes and, yes, one bagpipe and one saxophone solo.  It’s often funny, wrenching and just plain badass all at once, and it’s exhausting to listen to all the way through.  But I’ve come back to it over and over, and it has racked up some serious play counts since I obtained it.  Just imagining the musical buildup and relentless lyrical assault of “The Battle of Hampton Roads” in a live setting gives me shivers.  I can say definitively that it’s my favorite record of 2010 so far.

~ by toren on March 14, 2010.

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