Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, Your Album of the Day
Punks From New Jersey Write Rock Opera, Lets Count How Many Times I Reference Bruce Springsteen in a Review
Titus Andronicus, critically and historically is considered Shakespeare’s worst play. Also, it’s the name of a punk band from Glen Rock, New Jersey. New Jersey, the place responsible for this man, and these things. And these things. Or this scandal. And this person. Also, the person writing this review was not only born in Passaic, New Jersey, but also went to THE College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ, which is like a shitty suburb of the even more dilapidated capital, Trenton. Titus Andronicus of course frequented TCNJ often while I was attending undergrad.
Titus Andronicus are also some of the most forward thinking and ambitious punk bands out there. Their latest and fourth effort, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a 29 track 93 minute long rock opera in 5 acts about a guy who goes crazy or something. If you think that sounds like an album idea someone might have thought when really stoned and watching The Wall in their mom’s basement, we’re pretty much on the same page.
The Boss and Queen Factor
The obvious difference though, between The Most Lamentable Tragedy and something like The Wall or Tommy is that these Jersey punks worship the one and only, yes, you guessed it, Bruce Springsteen. In fact, “A More Perfect Union” off their breakout hit The Monitor references the New Jersey hit maker with lines like “‘Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to die” with unabashed pride. Like the other rugged and bombastic Jersey punks The Gaslight Anthem, Titus Andronicus embraces the Boss with open arms, Glockenspiels, and a masculine blue collar bravado that could only be cultivated by visiting the Jersey Shore on the weekends. On songs like “Mr. E. Mann” or “Fired Up” you could almost confuse them for E. Street Band compositions (sans Clarence Clemons, but still…).
Another big influence in Queen, whose epic Brian May compositions like “Prophet’s Song” or “White Man” comes through in their 9 minute long songs like “More Perfect Union” and “(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID.” Both are really well thought out songs that laboriously move from section to section with thoughtful purpose. Also, the beginning of Act III features a choral arrangement that seems handpicked from Freddie Mercury’s playbook of ways to introduce an epic song. These are some of the strongest moments in the album, as it gives the listener a breather from the wash of generic punk chords and verse-chorus-verse structures.
According to the Wikipedia – The Most Lamentable Tragedy is suppose to reflect the conscious of a manic-depressive. In some ways it achieves its goal. It pushes and pulls between the manic punkiness and songs that resemble funeral processions. The ever bearded Patrick Stickles sings mostly about how the hero character lost his mind, or how he has “something inside of [him],” or drugs or sex. However, even at its best, the album maintains heavy handed characterizations like “I think I’m crazy,” which, after a while starts to feel tediously simplistic and repetitive, especially if you compare it to the dense literary character studies of Waters or Townshend.
The most balanced song in the entire set is the raucous single “Fatal Flaw” which transcends the tension of mania vs. depressive by being bombastic, manically aggressive, and still maintaining a sympathetically endearing portrait of the protagonist.
The most difficult aspect of the album, however, is dealing with the bloat. The bloated composition style serves nicely for the longer songs – the act breaks are appreciated to compartmentalize the album – but a lot of the shorter songs are forgettable and oftentimes overwritten with awkward proggy maneuvers. Take, for example, “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” which starts out of the gates with an exciting riff (Rush?) and Stickle’s gritty voice wailing a half garbled scream. The song progresses into an extended verses and…. the gut punch loses its punch. Then it goes into a long instrumental, which all but deflates the song before diving back into the exciting first riff for a book end.
It would be more forgivable if the next track “Stranded (On My Own)” didn’t follow a similar trajectory of exciting riffage, followed by bloated proggy twists and turns.
The next track “Lonely Boy” however, has enough hook, focus, and interesting dynamic and classic rock homage (a Rolling Stones sendup, complete with sax interlude) to warrant its 5+ minutes. This highlights a general guide for The Most Lamentable Tragedy, its best when it indulges in its classic rock influences, and tedious when it sticks to an underwhelming fist pumping punk similar but less effective versions of Against Me! or The Hold Steady. Unfortunately, fist pumping progressive punk makes up more than a good portion of the album.
The most pleasurable part of the record is the last couple songs. Gone are the big E-Street band arraignments, the generic and progressive punk, and in its place is the piano ballad of “No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming” which is perhaps the closest they come to a Wall sendup (See: “One of My Turns”). The song is one of the most powerful moments. After a piano ballad, the accordion finale of “Stable Boy” still sounds a bit like Springsteen, but leans towards Tom Waits (See: “Innocent When You Dream”), ending the album on a nostalgic if appropriately depressive note.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a difficult and ambitious double album. It has a mixed bag of songs, which really shine when it shines, and falls flat when it falls flat. The heavy influence of Springsteen is often cringeworthy, and I feel like a lot of your opinion of this album hinges on your opinion of Springsteen, but I also recognize that it works to the advantage of some of the songs. Sometimes the songs that fall flat appears as a product of the less than convincing conceptual meta-narrative. While not completely a hit throughout – I feel like this album has the “gems in the rough” quality. There’s a lot of bloat to work around, but once you get to the bare bones of the album, there are some powerful musical statements that come front and center.
Springsteen Count: 6 (if you count the picture)