New bards of New Jersey visit the heart of madness on brawny, baroque concept album
When Patrick Stickles began talking to the press in September 2013 about his band Titus Andronicus’ forthcoming fourth record, a 30-track concept album entitled The Most Lamentable Tragedy, he had just one song committed to tape, the raucous, self-lacerating “Fatal Flaw”. This would seem, on the surface, to be foolhardy – we know what happens to the best-laid schemes, after all. But as Stickles had it, there was method in his madness. By talking about it, he had to follow through with this gigantic undertaking – or self-destruct in the process.
Now it has finally appeared, Titus Andronicus’ fourth album feels, if anything, more ambitious in reality than on paper. A musical tale in five acts, it follows the story of an unnamed protagonist who comes face to face with his own doppelgänger, sending him on a “transformative odyssey” and to the brink of sanity along the way. Stickles is keen to point out that The Most Lamentable Tragedy is fiction, and this certainly is a strand that runs through Titus Andronicus. Here, after all, is a group who take their name from Shakespeare’s most bloodthirsty revenge tragedy, and once titled a song “Albert Camus”. But truthfully, it is hard – and probably unhelpful – to disentangle the album’s theme from Stickles’ biography, which encompasses an ongoing struggle with manic depression, suicidal ideation, a lifetime on medication and a rare eating disorder. It’s not that Stickles isn’t a skilled enough writer to spin a brilliant story – indeed the opposite is true. More that he’s burrowed far enough down the artistic rabbit hole to a place where art and life are essentially indistinguishable.
Just as fundamental to understanding Titus Andronicus is knowing this band hail from New Jersey, and how that fact is imprinted on their DNA. Punk rock and Springsteen are the twin pillars of Stickles’ musical philosophy, and Titus Andronicus songs have that soused, celebratory feel, even when – as on “I Lost My Mind” or the good-time boogie “Lonely Boy” ¬– the written contents go to the darkest places. It’s a mark of Stickles’ voracious creative energies that all these competing currents don’t feel so much reconcilable as pure and instinctual. The result, on The Most Lamentable Tragedy, is a collison of blue-collar brawn and baroque artistry, like Springsteen And The E-Street Band covering Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, or The Replacements with David Foster Wallace installed as their creative director.
This is undoubtedly Titus Andronicus’ best-sounding album to date. Assembled over five months at five different studios between New York and Massachusetts, each song explodes with organ, clarinet, mandolin and saxophone, with violin and viola parts arranged and played by Owen Pallett. “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” and “Stranded (On My Own)” set the scene, harrowing portraits of the tormented artist that articulate the life-ebb of depression with lyrical extravagance. “Fragrance of a pungent skunk/Hung in the repugnant dungeon where I had sunk,” sings Stickles on the former, before acknowledging the line is a good one, and singing it again.
The plot gets moving on Act Two’s opener “Lookalike”, a one-minute punk thrash that sees our hero come face to face with his double (“He don’t act like me/But we look alike!”). This is the cue for a remarkable 20 minutes of music that encompasses a radically reassembled take on Daniel Johnston’s “I Had Lost My Mind”; “Fired Up”, a triumphant screed against organised religion and physicians who drug children; and “Dimed Out”, a voracious hymn to living in the red that resembles a manic episode rendered as song. (This isn’t just conjecture: one of Stickles’ touchstones here is Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament, which applies modern psychological learning to the works of Byron, Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf.)
For a 91-minute album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy feels astonishingly consistent. There is little sense of flag throughout, even as it zigs and zags madly to its creator’s whim. There is a nine-minute heavy metal headbanger called “(S)HE SAID/(S)HE SAID”, a casually tossed in cover of The Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes”, a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” that ends on a tolling note of doom. Come the final, fifth act, the plot is coming a little unstuck, and not everything hits – in particular, the closing “Stable Boy”, a deliberately naïve cassette-recorded piece about how cats and horses don’t fear death, played by Stickles on a chord organ, makes for a shambolic climax. But by now you’ve long since given up on Stickles serving up a coherent denouement, accustomed as you are by being flung around on the storm of his moods.
You could place The Most Lamentable Tragedy into a grand lineage of concept albums about a young man pitted against a cruel world that stretches from The Who’s Tommy through Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade to Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life. But more than trying to slot into any existing canon, you sense that Stickles is more interested in assembling his own body of work. “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” and “No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming” continue a series that commenced on Titus Andronicus’ debut LP, while other moments hark back to earlier work – see mandolin shanty “More Perfect Union”, which revisits the themes of patriotism and liberty invoked on “A More Perfect Union” from 2010’s The Monitor.
Instead, Stickles calls The Most Lamentable Tragedy his Gesamtkunstwerk – a term coined by the German philosopher Karl Trahndorff that translates as “total artwork”, drawing on multiple mediums to create an artwork of the future. Exactly how this plays out live we shall see, but prior to the album’s release landed a 15-minute video, The Magic Morning, Stickles and band dramatising the album’s standout second act with added dance routines. It’s low-budget and playfully done – with the aid of some clever angling, Stickles plays both himself and his doppelgänger, one in sweatpants and sporting a full fisherman’s beard, the other clean-shaven and darting around in white gym kit. Still, it leads you to reflect on the album’s themes further. Is one the manic Stickles and the other the depressed Stickles? Is one the real Patrick Stickles – and if so, which?
Titus Andronicus are undoubtedly a band scholarly about their rock history. But The Most Lamentable Tragedy feels like a quintessentially modern album, a scintillating examination of mania and neurosis that uses the history of rock’n’roll as mere stage dressing for its bravura performance. Stickles is no Springsteen, writing relatable songs for the American Everyman. Instead, what he does here sounds close to unprecedented in the field of rock music: he journeys right to the heart of madness, and through artistic ambition and sheer determination, he grasps it and bends it to his will.
So your new album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy…
TMLT. That’s what I call it. Like “tumult”. Like the tumultuous state that all life is permanently affixed in.
So it’s intended to be an acronym?
Primarily, it’s an allusion to the Shakespeare play from which we named our band – but it also turned out to be an acronym. I didn’t know about the acronym when we had the notion it might be the title, but when I realised the acronym was there – and what the acronym said – then it was a lock. I took that as a sign from the universe, a secret message that was hidden from me, in the works of Shakespeare. If only we had the eyes to see it and the ears to hear it, because the poetry of the universe is being spoken around us all the time.
Shakespeare is an enduring influence for you.
The thing about it is… hold on a second [mutters to someone]. Sorry, that’s our new pianist Elio DeLuca, he’s just joined the band. We’re a six-piece band now. He’s played as session musician on every record we’ve done, but now he’s a full-time member of the band. We’re not kidding around anymore. He’s put his chips down. But he spent the night at my apartment, we did our first little recording last night on the radio. But anyway, what I was going to say about the Bard – your old buddy from Stratford On Avon – is that when I was a young guy, in my small town where I grew up there was a very influential drama teacher named Okey Canfield Chenoweth III. He’s still alive, but he’s super-old – he must be 85 now, I guess. This guy was a mad scientist of theatre, all the artsy-fartsy people looked up to him. He retired when I was in the fourth grade, but I was lucky enough to study under him for two years. And he basically laid the foundation for my understanding of the artist’s job. Always tell the truth, first things first. And if the truth doesn’t get you there, then you’ve got to raise the stakes. Those were his big lessons. And that was the beginning of my education as an artist. I actually went over his house with my four-track, and he performed some readings that appeared on our first two albums – on the first album he read from Camus’ The Stranger, and on the second album, our Civil War album, he read from the writings of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.
Why did you decide to write a rock opera?
Well, when you get right down to it, when you call an album a rock opera, that’s the first indication this isn’t just a regular run-of-the-mill record to put on while you’re making dinner. There are a lot of elevator music bands out there today making our money, and that’s what a lot of people look for in music – an opiate you can use to tune out at the end of a long and humiliating day. I want it to be abundantly clear to even the most casual observer that we have no interest in entering ourselves into that contest. We are not in competition with those bands who treat music as a fucking tranquiliser, or for people to put on like some kind of status symbol – collecting these bands like Pokémon, or some fucking charm bracelet, you know? We’re trying to do everything we can to alienate ourselves from that whole thing. We went out of our way to make a record that wouldn’t fit into any narrative, to any zeitgeist – that would create its own zeitgeist. To us, this is heaven – and heaven is a place on earth, right? So that’s one part of it. The whole “fuck everybody” part. We’re not going to be a pawn in anyone’s game.
Describing The Most Lamentable Tragedy, you invoke the notion of a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork”. What does that say about what you’re trying to achieve?
Well, even though we work in a particular idiom, rock’n’roll in this case, that’s not the length or width of our interests. We are interested in other things. And as a vocalist who, in my more pretentious moments, talks of what I do in literary terms, I’m trying to curate a certain emotional experience for the listener. When you put the album on, I want you to surrender – in the same way that you might to a great movie, or a book. The way that I am overjoyed to surrender to Lars Von Trier, or Louis CK, or Alan Moore. Anyone who is fearless, or stretching the boundaries of the field that they are working in. I love “Tutti Frutti” and fucking “Louie Louie”, and you’d better believe at the end of “Louie Louie” I’m fucking grateful. But it’s not the same experience you get when you’re immersed in a great book, or the feeling you get when you’ve seen a great movie and it’s shaken up your interior. They light a spark in your brain. I’m a musician and we’re a fucking rock’n’roll band, and that’s the number one thing. But at the same time I still want to do to people what the artists I just described did to me. Artists that wanted to take us on a ride. Whatever the hell we’re doing, whatever the format is – whether it’s a rock album, movie, TV sitcom – it’s all just to get the audience member to a certain emotional point, or lead them on an emotional journey.
INTERVIEW: LOUIS PATTISON
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