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Titus Andronicus, ‘Local Business’ (XL)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: October 22, 2012
Label: XL

Coverage of Titus Andronicus’ albums, tours, and Twitter rants tends to focus exclusively on their grandness. The New Jersey band’s 2010 breakout, The Monitor, mixed punk rock and historical fiction, recounting Civil War battles and quoting Abraham Lincoln at length across a double-album on which half the 10 songs stretched past seven minutes. Likewise, they can, at times, appear imposingly serious and even pretentious, as outspoken frontman Patrick Stickles is given to calling out unfairly run venues and peers who license their songs to corporations, holding himself, his friends, and his enemies alike to an overarching punk ethic passed down by Ian MacKaye. But amid all this, one thing is generally overlooked: their sense of humor.

From its first lines (“So I guess by now we’ve established / That everything is inherently worthless”) to its nine-minute closer, Local Business draws down The Monitor‘s size (alas, this one only has two songs longer than seven minutes), but retains its ambitions. There are songs about death and disease and capitalism and consumption, and rather than mediate his lyrics, experiences, and ideas through an extended 19th-century narrative of naval battles and great speeches, Stickles instead takes a more direct tone, singing about the struggles he himself seems to be facing. In short, this is very clearly a record written by a man who performs with a picture of Albert Camus pinned to his guitar strap. Some will find it a disappointing follow-up to one of the great rock records of the past few years. Some will jump around and pump their fists to every chorus without giving the lyrics much thought; some will live and die by every word. Some will even find it all kind of funny. Nobody is necessarily wrong.

After that aforementioned opener addresses the banality of life and, per Stickles’ slightly tongue-in-cheek track commentary, “the inherent contradiction of making an anti-consumerist statement via a consumer product,” the band moves on to an uptempo narration of a fight between Content and Context (spoiler alert: Content wins), and a similarly paced reflection on seeing commuters consider a horrific car accident only in terms of how it will affect their busy schedules. Perhaps you’ll be relieved to learn that both feature the swelling guitars and irresistible chants that make Titus Andronicus one of the best live bands in rock.

From there, the group enters one of the strongest four-song stretches of its career, offering the would-be Hootenanny outtake “Food Fight!,” a minute-long burst whose innocent connotation is cleverly upended when it becomes “My Eating Disorder,” a presumably autobiographical account of how the robot that lives in the singer’s brain tells him to spit out much of what he puts into his mouth. “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round K.O.),” a quick one that contains more words in its title than in the actual song, and which would make for a fun Germs tune if it were played faster, then leads into “In a Big City,” which finds Stickles and company having crossed the Hudson from New Jersey into New York and, depending on the chord, line, or inflection, feeling melancholy, frustrated, invigorated, or overwhelmed. When he sings, “Some of my dreams are coming true,” you can’t help but think about all the ones that aren’t.

Through it all, Titus remain not just a comic band but an optimistic one. Even if they criticize others for selling out, they do it because they believe that a more authentic listening experience is still possible; when they write songs about alienation, the feeling of hopelessness, and the contradictions of their music, they do it because they believe these issues are still worth discussing.

Likewise, taking the band’s advice and considering the record in its proper context, Local Business‘ title is less about mom-and-pop stores than about rethinking the reach of punk and indie rock itself. As global movements, both have long become co-opted and toothless, but amid smaller communities with the ability to actually address issues and take action, this stuff remains powerful and transformative. That’s the idea that has animated Titus since its inception, and though they remain as attached to it as ever — maybe moreso — one can hear traces of an always-creeping doubt when Stickles sings line like, “Yes it’s us against them again, smashing the system into the dirt / Now we gobble brown M&M’s, put the whole thing onto a T-shirt” or, three songs later, “There was promise in these pages / Now they rot under the rain.”

In one sense, Local Business is a failure. For starters, it’s riddled with doubt and uncertainty, never comes close to resolving any of the issues it raises, and its conclusion — five minutes spent repeating variations of the lines, “It’s not that I wanted to hurt you / I just didn’t care if I did,” and five minutes spent soloing into the abyss — isn’t much of one. But it’s also a necessary failure, and a failure powerful enough to call into question what plenty of other bands mean when they talk about success.

In the end, though, what’s wrong with a failure like that? Isn’t it akin to the realization that torments so many of those French existentialists that Stickles so cherishes, the one answered by earlier Titus songs like The Monitor‘s “No Future Part Three”? You will, on some level, always be a loser. And more importantly, maybe that’s okay.