Release Date: July 27, 2015
Rock operas are an inherently dicey proposition. Have the right themes, tools, and ability, and you could wind up with a masterpiece that people will still (rightfully?) poke holes in, crying “pretentious” or “grandiose” — would you rather sit through The Wall or Animals? But even if you have all the right pieces aligned, one flash of inspiration could quickly become an abject, laughable disaster; there’s American Idiot and then there’s 21st Century Breakdown. There’s something defiant in even having the guts to attempt this stuff, in taking a pop form and bending it to your will to incorporate narrative, or history and philosophy, or convoluted sci-fi fantasy saga (hi, Coheed and Cambria!).
There’s a (wildly uneven) historical precedent for it now, but nearly a half century after Tommy, a musician planning a concept album still provokes. It’s an unsafe bet. In the loose indie/rock sphere, there are precious few bands with the kind of big-screen artistic vision (and balls) necessary to pull off such an endeavor. But when Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles unveils a 93-minute opus inspired by his own struggles with manic depression, it’s different. This is the guy who melded Civil War references with the tribulations of his New Jersey life on 2010’s The Monitor, and the gambit turned out to be one of the true rock classics of the 21st century. If there’s anyone who can pull this s—t off in 2015, it’s Titus Andronicus.
In a way, Stickles’ catalog is one huge continuous project. There are recurring themes and imagery, titles playing into multi-part sagas stretching across all four albums. Stickles has always been a songwriter invested in pouring a ton of references into his music: shoutouts to sitcoms alongside the kind of intricate historical or philosophical metaphors that many conceptualizers wouldn’t dream of touching directly.
Where The Monitor was a punk rock Born to Run for a different generation, full of sprawling “Jungleland” revamps, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is an epic of different means. It’s comprised of the punchiest, most direct songs this band has yet unleashed. The kind of build and arc that might occur over the course of one song on The Monitor now divides into a handful of tracks strung together, resulting in hit after hit, all delivered in quick succession. Some of these offer tuneful surprises: “Mr. E. Mann” and “Come On, Siobhan” might be the most infectious, poppiest songs Titus Andronicus have ever recorded. Others are refined continuations of archetypes we already knew the band did well, whether it’s the furious, violin-guarded burst of “Dimed Out,” or the combustible “Fired Up,” one of the most dangerously bottled-up (and best) songs of the band’s career.
Like To Pimp a Butterfly or Surf, it feels audacious these days just to release an album you need to play from beginning to end. There are plenty of songs that stand alone brilliantly (the barroom shamble “Lonely Boy,” the surprisingly affecting piano ballad “No Future Part V: Endless Dreaming,”), but the whole experience is more impactful even with the silent interludes, which let you catch your breath between piece after set piece where the ferocity hardly lets up.
In lesser hands, it’d be easy enough for this to feel like a slog somewhere along the line. But rather than dragging, the middle of the record is actually its peak: The stretch from track ten (“Mr. E. Mann”) to 20 (“Come On, Siobahn”) rivals even The Monitor‘s breathtaking run from “A More Perfect Union” to “A Pot in Which to Piss.” You also get the brooding-then-fuming “Funny Feeling,” and “Fatal Flaw,” where the Jersey sextet appropriates some Stones-style swagger. (Incidentally, Stickles recently said that he considers Exile on Main Street to be the “greatest double album ever.”)
Sure, with silent segue tracks and an eerie rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” this monolith is excessive. It’s overwhelming and demanding. That’s part of the point. You have to carve out time for this thing, to really dig into it. You have to give a damn. But Titus Andronicus give back. The Most Lamentable Tragedy might ask something of you, but it pays you in catharsis after catharsis, all jammed up against one another. Stickles doesn’t hold anything back, and he’s someone who’s still willing to reach at the easy risk of falling on his face. He’s the guy who gives a damn, the guy who cares enough about this world and translating human experience in it that he’s going to take a shot at writing a rock opera about manic depression.
From Hendrix to Cobain, that subject matter is not new territory. But there’s something admirable and special in the way Stickles can toss out a “Hello… Newman” Seinfeld nod in “Lonely Boy” or yawp like a human volcano on “(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID.” Or in the way that the dual “I Lost My Mind” tracks collapse both ends of the album’s emotional spectrum, with Titus’ original bouncy but frank about mental illness and the Daniel Johnston cover a more desperate and sardonic tale of a trip to the lost and found: “Well, you can identify it please? / I said, ‘Well, sure, it’s a cute little bugger.’” The Most Lamentable Tragedy can be a harrowing listen, but it’s also laced with jokes and music that’s fun and invigorating.
Stickles has suggested that the end of Titus could be imminent — or, rather, that he’s often thought the band would implode after each album. If it’s actually true this time, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a hell of a final testament, an album that sums up everything about why Titus Andronicus works. Hopefully, he’s lying again. There aren’t many rock bands of their breed, of their cinematic believability, who can will to life a volatile, visceral mix of Neutral Milk Hotel and Sufjan Stevens’ ornate “indie” dramas with savage punk. They’re one of the only acts in the world whose ability to produce their art in their own distinct way feels like a matter of life and death.