If you’re a fan of indie rock, 2010 looks to be a landmark year. Already Spoon, Frightened Rabbit, and Ted Leo & The Pharmacists have put out new records, and the coming months will see highly anticipated releases from, among others, The Hold Steady, Drive-By Truckers, The National, The Walkmen, Band of Horses, The Strokes, and The Black Keys. In any given year that’s full house of solid Top 10 contenders, but this is going to be a more competitive year than usual it seems. I’ll tell you what though, it’s going to take a lot to match what is easily the best rock album I’ve heard so far this year - Titus Andronicus’s shot at the brass ring, The Monitor.
Released this week, The Monitor follows the Jersey band’s critically acclaimed 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances. A step forward from that solid beginning in every imaginable way, the new album is just a non-stop guitar-rock assault that mixes punk rock’s sheer force with horn sections, martial drums, E Street Band keys, and lead singer/songwriter Patrick Stickles’ angsty growl. Stickles has written a concept album that’s loosely held together by themes of missed opportunities and feeling out of place in this world. Though the album takes place in modern times, the backdrop of the American Civil War looms large in the song titles, artwork, and through a series of spoken word interludes drawn from, among other sources, speeches by Abe Lincoln and a Walt Whitman poem. Like Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ or Marah’s Kids In Philly, Titus Andronicus make it clear that this is a rock album in which a vividly depicted setting is crucial to the viability of its songs. New Jersey, long romanticized in song and pretty much nowhere else, is brought to life as an empty, soul-sucking place from which the only thing one can do is escape. So yeah, Born To Run for a new generation of disaffected youth.
Though never offering anything resembling an easily followed narrative, The Monitor was named after a great Union warship that fought to a veritable stalemate in the real Battle of Hampton Roads (there’s a song called that) against the Confederates’ equally impressive battleship, The Virginia. Rather than shame itself by surrendering, The Virginia blew itself up. The Monitor wound up sinking nondescriptly soon thereafter. The fates of these two ships act as a sort of metaphor for the theme of the album, as Stickles said recently, “These two terribly beautiful war-making machines, the best from each side, couldn't kill each other so they just killed themselves.” Sort of the anti-Romeo and Juliet.
Over-arching themes and historical connections aside, The Monitor works best as a fun, balls-to-the-wall rock record. Kicking off with the awesome battle cry “A More Perfect Union”, the album begins by throwing out references to Abraham Lincoln, “Born To Run”, Billy Bragg‘s “A New England”, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, John Brown, the friggin' Constitution of The United States of America, and, I’ve read that it’s in there but still haven’t heard it, The Dark Knight. They should sell this thing with some kind of decoder ring, as the deep and varied references just keep piling on (my favorite - “I’m going back to New Jersey, I do believe they’ve had enough of me” in 14-minute epic closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads”). Lyrically, Stickles reaches high, but much more often than not he hits his mark. I mean, “you ain't never been a virgin kid, you been fucked from the start” is rock & roll poetry of the highest order, no?
Named after Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, a blood-filled story of revenge, Titus Andronicus has never shied away from violence, self-loathing, and revenge in their songs. The Monitor takes these bleak motifs and turns them into loud, glorious excuses to bang your head, play air guitar, and shout along. Working best as a series of cathartic anthems that will no doubt soon be shouted in unison by thousands of fans on upcoming tours, these ten songs barely let up over the 60+ minutes running time. I dare you not to get caught up in the impassioned cries of “rally around the flag”, “the enemy is everywhere”, “you will always be a loser”, and especially “it’s still us against them”. This is impassioned stuff, and if you trust my usual tastes around here, then don’t hesitate to buy this record. It's a goddamn masterpiece.
MP3 :: A More Perfect Union
MP3 :: Four Score And Seven (Part 1)
MP3 :: Four Score And Seven (Part 2)
(from The Monitor. Buy here)