In a way, we're lucky, really.
It was enough of a shock for everyone, I think, that an album like Titus Andronicus' 2008 debut full-length, The Airing of Grievances, was allowed to be. In a world as devoid of good things as TA frontman Patrick Stickles would have us believe this one is, the existence of something so pure, so good, so raw and intense and impossibly perfect as The Airing of Grievances seems like a one-in-a-billion chance.
And that sort of album could only really come from a band as crazy as Titus Andronicus, for that matter. Let's review the facts: (1) They're from New Jersey. (2) In about four years, they've racked up 13, count 'em, thirteen ex-members. (3) They make loud, angry songs about nihilism, depression, anger and cultural references. (4) Though generally critically acclaimed, their appeal is (unsurprisingly) lost on the masses. When I saw them in September, they played on a Friday night in the sixth-largest urban metropolis in North America to about three dozen people*. To boot: before The Airing of Grievances was mercifully remastered and re-released by XL Recordings a year ago, it was put out on vinyl by Troubleman Unlimited. My copy of that release, easily the most shoddily-packaged vinyl I own by a mile, is hand numbered 79/500, and doesn't even have labels for the A and B sides. I don't think anyone would be too surprised if a band like that just up and died. We could all sit around the campfire, listening to the climactic ending to "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'" ad nauseum and reminisce about the good times.
But lo, Titus Andronicus lived on to make a sophomore record. Enter The Monitor, a "not-quite" concept album about the American Civil War. If you were hoping for the lyrics to be about more revolutionary times than these, I'm sorry to say that you're going to be disappointed. For all of you who shudder at the joining of the the words "concept" and "album," however--and being that this is Punknews, I know that that's most of you--fear not. Sure, there are bits between songs where various music dudes read old-timey quotes. But TA did that last time around too, only here it's about U.S. politics circa 150 years ago instead of Shakespeare or Camus.
That's not the only shift in tone that The Monitor embodies, though. There's also the music, which, for lack of a better word, is wimpier. Now: Don't get me wrong. This is a very good album. And it will continue, no doubt, to grow on me, and it will grow on you too, dear reader. But The Monitor is not as tough and violent as its older brother. It's more ambitious, sure. At 65 minutes in length, it's a full 50% longer than The Airing of Grievances. In fact, epic--and I'm not using this term lightly--closing number "The Battle of Hampton Roads," which features, so far as I can tell, the only two verses worth of Civil War lyrics on the album, is, at 14:02, longer than the two longest tracks off their debut combined. The lead single, "Four Score and Seven," easily one of the album's best tracks, didn't even fit on one side of a 7", for fuck's sakes.
But the same shit-starting intensity of The Airing of Grievances has been tempered a little bit. As "A Pot in Which to Piss" gets ready to go balls-out, it turns into a dancey piano number. "Richard II," a sort-of homage to Billy Bragg's "Richard," is fantastically catchy, but wades into the Gaslight Anthem end of the punk pool a little. The two short tracks, "Titus Andronicus Forever" and "...And Ever," which, an album ago, would've been straight-up punk songs, are here two versions of the same surf-rock riff rip, over which are laid the repeated shout "The enemy is everywhere! The enemy is everywhere!", delivered with a good deal more winking sarcasm than inchoate rage. In fact, speaking of repeated lines, the album's closing lyrics go: "Please don't ever leave me." Over and over. For about a minute. That's dangerously close to a brand of emo more pathetic than I care to know about. They don't sound as bad as I just made them sound--but still.
So the question you have to ask yourself is: Why did you like Titus Andronicus in the first place? Was it purely the angry, vitriolic punkiness of it? Because "Titus Andronicus," their signature eponymous track, made you want to mosh while screaming "Your life is over! Your life is over!" over and over? Or did you enjoy them because Patrick Stickles is as intelligent, interesting, enigmatic and hell-raising a songwriter as the middle of the Venn diagram between "Pitchfork hipsters" and "punk rockers" is ever likely to see? Because The Monitor is a valiant second effort, and though I can't in good conscience say it's better than The Airing of Grievances, goddamn is it a fun album--one that demands repeated listening, and one that rewards repeat listening, too. For an hour-and-change album, that it doesn't drag is frankly an impressive achievement. Oh, and there's a hilarious Scooby Doo reference thrown in at one point for good measure. That's an embarrassment of riches if I've ever seen one.
* - supMontreal, if you're wondering, though for the purposes of the statement I excluded Mexico from my definition of North America.