Titus Andronicus - An Obelisk (Cover Artwork)

Titus Andronicus

An Obelisk (2019)


An Obelisk is the first Titus Andronicus album without a sense of place. There are no geographical markers or physical reference points in the text of the record. It could be happening anywhere, at any time, to anyone.

It's not an accident. Of the band’s decade-long work in cataloging struggles of every kind, An Obelisk is the Titus Andronicus’ most external. This is a record of “man vs machine”; outside of one outlier ("My Body and Me"), there is no “man vs self” going on here, at least not in the traditional sense. It is as clear a statement about oppression that the band has made in its six-album career of anthemic sloganeering. The statement is this: It's happening to you, right now, and you're a part of it.

All of this might make the record sound like a bit of a drag, but if you ignored the lyrics and lived within the moment-to-moment music, An Obelisk is a fucking party. The three-song run of "Just Like Ringing A Bell," "Troubleman Unlimited" and "(I Blame) Society" might be the band's most rollicking start to an album since Local Business. The first and third songs in that triad are straight-ahead screamers in the "punk as classic rock" vein the band has well mined, but "Troubleman Unlimited" packs the real punch. It has a George Thorogood, bar-swag quality to it, and its transition from bridge to guitar solo is one of the most lifting musical moments on the record. Elsewhere, "My Body and Me" plods like the band was binging on T-Rex, and tracks like "Tumult Around the World" and "Hey Ma" position Titus Andronicus as spiritual successors to repetitive valor of Ted Leo and the Pharmacist (worth noting: Pharmacists drummer Chris Wilson is behind the kit for this record).

A word about the songwriting before digging into the text of the lyrics: principle songwriter Patrick Stickles gives the songs a compelling, rock-solid internal rhyme scheme that drives cohesion. It's hard to notate this in a review, but the way that his phrasing hangs together on something like "(I Blame) Society" is impressive to behold; "They're hiding their disease / behind a giant sign / it's twice the size / of life as we perceive it to be." It’s considered, thoughtful writing, and even if it leads to an awkward, unnatural turn from time-to-time, you cannot accuse the dude of fucking around.

Because, clearly, the stakes are high. "They're making a dirty fortune selling something that's barely working," goes the chorus on album-opener "Just Like Ringing a Bell." This observation comes a few seconds after the accusation that "we're cutting our own incisions and inserting their hurting pain." "They supply us meager feedings while they feast in greed," goes "(I Blame) Society," right before the reveal that "We're all complicit / our fingerprints all bleed." On "On the Street," there are too many police. On "Within the Gravitron," we're all the problem.

That's the sticky thing about examining the text on An Obelisk, is that there are no easy answers. The skeleton key to unlocking the perspective is probably "Within the Gravitron;" within the context of a world that's dying, we turn our fear on each other to express both a primal, engrained violence and a manifestation of anxiety at being slowly crushed by a thousand indignities large and small. That's the energy that flows throughout the album, and it gives the record a severity that feels more akin to something Elvis Costello or The Clash might have released as opposed to a modern U.S. contemporary.

If this all seems a bit bleak, don't blame Titus Andronicus for that. An Obelisk is clear-eyed and pessimistic, but it isn't without hope. The record closes with "Tumult Around the World," a rousing call to arms centered around the notion that we are all in this together, all being crushed at the same time. It's an anthem for brotherhood steeped in the baptism of common suffering that doubles as an excellent song to soundtrack the hurling of a brick. It's a working-class celebration of the fact that we’re all in this dog-fuck together. It works on its own as a rousing party song, but it works even better as a rally point for the weary at the end of the record. They might be winning, but the fight never stops, for better or for worse.