The Bipolar Genius of Titus Andronicus Lyricist Patrick Stickles, Part One

Google Titus Andronicus’ latest record The Most Lamentable Tragedy and you will find that most–if not all–of the reviews include a reference to singer Patrick Stickles’ manic depression.  I have cringed at those innacuracies, because as a genuinely fervent Titus head I need to get the mental illness distinction corrected.  To be bipolar means the person experiences ups (mania) and downs (depression) in extremes, sometimes in quick succession.  Therefore “manic depressive” simply means bipolar.  Because I am the only fan/critic who has decided to point this out, mine is the only opinion that matters.*

In all seriousness though, living with bipolar disorder is difficult.  Stickles has lived its struggles, and because of that he wrote an album that not only must be heard, but also cements Titus Andronicus as the best American rock band this side of the millennium.

There is not a doctor that can diagnose me

I am dying slowly from Patrick Stickles disease

–“No Future Part 1”  The Airing of Grievances   

In order to better understand the mind from which The Most Lamentable Tragedy (TMLT) was spawned, it helps to brush up on the band’s history.  Titus Andronicus’ (or +@, their preferred acronym) first album, 2008’s The Airing of Grievances, introduced the world to the band’s pretentious multidisciplinary education.  They encouraged listeners to surround themselves with lyric sheets, works of literature, philosophical manifests and pieces of art when listening to their music.

Pieter Brueghel’s sixteenth century “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” depicts the Greek myth in which boy Icarus succeeded in flying using feathers secured with wax. Ignoring his father Daedalus’ warnings, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melted the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water just below the ship.

“Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,'” for example, is about Stickles realizing that if something horrible were to happen to him, life would go on:  “I was born into self-actualization / I knew exactly who I was / but I never got my chance to be young.”  Perhaps he laments becoming the oblivious man plowing while the man he wanted to become is drowning in the realities of the world.  Stickles draws heavily from his own experiences and neuroses, but also feels the need to passively seek out those who are know and understand his references– or at the very least introduce his audience to some essential cultural artifacts.

The Airing of Grievances also includes two spoken monologues.  The first is none other than Titus Andronicus’ famous soliloquy from the character’s eponymous revenge tragedy by Shakespeare.  The second is the final paragraph of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, in which the main character “lays his heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”  As a senior in high school who was unhappily forced to read the French literary classic as part of the curriculum, I now marvel at the bittersweet significance of such a line.  For Stickles, it highlights his rage against the meaningless of his existence.

I will be as harsh as truth, and uncompromising as justice.  On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation.  I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.    –William Lloyd Garrison, as quoted in +@’s “A More Perfect Union.”  The Monitor

Not to be deterred by critics who disapprovingly spat on +@’ overstuffed lyrical content and entitled scholarly wisdom, Stickles wrote a concept album that used the American Civil War as a metaphor for a failed relationship.  As overambitious as that sounds, the project was not a dud, and it became the perfect vessel to deliver the band into the spotlight.  Not only does it include defiant abolitionist speeches, but it delves into Lincoln inaugural addresses, the anxieties of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the poetry of Walt Whitman.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Still lauded as the band’s best record by critics and worshipped by Titus heads, The Monitor (2010) did much more than rehash American history.  On “Four Score and Seven,” Stickles begins by defeatedly singing “This is a war we can’t win / after ten thousand years it’s still us against them.”  Sure, the Civil War ended, but man has always been killing man over societal inequalities and territorial or power disputes.  Stickles sang about it on The Airing of Grievances as well: “When called to answer for their crimes / the only response that they could find / was that it seemed to be a good idea at the time…and the cries of the helpless were never, never enough” (“No Future Part Two: The Days After No Future”).  Questioning senseless violence for the sake of the American dream might seem like a liberal trap, but Stickles spares no one.  He is not interested in purity because he knows it does not exist.  No one is flawless and we are all part the same species and therefore guilty by association.

There’s a way to live the values your forefathers gave you
Prepare to be told “that shit’s gay dude,” but I guess that what they say is true
And there is no race more human, no one throws it away like they do

“The Battle of Hampton Roads”

These kinds of lyrics still ring painfully true, but the true genius behind The Monitor’s success were the abreactive anthems and exuberant mantras.  Somehow +@ managed to turn cries of “the enemy is everywhere,” “it’s still us against them,” “it’s alright, the way that you live,” and “you will always be a loser” into transformative cheers of acceptive love.  The silliness of repetitively yelling these choruses over roiling drums or catchy guitar licks is the exact kind of thing that defines Stickles’ writing style: mania and depression performed simultaneously.  Perhaps the most poignant example of this comes at the end of “No Future, Pt. Three: Escape from No Future.”  After all band members chant “you will always be a loser” thirty times across a ridiculous number of bars of music (not unlike protesters or fans at a sporting event), Stickles affirms, “AND THAT’S OKAY!”

+@’ triumphantly epic and powerfully cathartic sophomore release vaulted the band into indie rock stardom, but also threw Stickles into a deep depression.  Perhaps he dwelled too much on the follies of man which he raged against.

Solidarity’s gonna give a little less than it’ll take

Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?

Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?

Is there a human alive ain’t looked themselves in the face without winking

or saying what they mean without drinking

who will believe in something without thinking, ‘what if someone doesn’t approve?’

Is there a soul on this earth that isn’t too frightened to prove?

“Battle of Hampton Roads”

Out of that depressive iteration of Stickles’ bipolar disorder came +@’s third album, Local Business.  Released in 2012, Stickles reveals more details of his troubled life:

Drug addict since single digits

Vitamins to fight the fidgets

They put something in my applesauce but I found it

–“My Eating Disorder”

At the age of four, Stickles’ parents started to hide Ritalin in his food.  This forced him to question the natural progression of his personality, caused him to have trouble eating and made him struggle with his self-image.  In the same song he bemoans, “I can feel you starting to judge me / I’m starting to feel, I’m feeling ugly…I know the world’s a scary place–that’s why I hide behind a hairy face.”

The album also includes a song in which he witnesses a fatal car crash (“Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood Of Detritus”), realizations that he is a meaningless puppet in a consumerist society (“In A Big City,” “In a Small Body”), and festering confessions of partaking in a lot of meaningless sex.

It made me wonder if I’ve ever been my authentic self, or if I’ve just been a series of chemical reactions influenced by substances I’ve consumed. And it’s gone on from there, to taking antidepressants and drinking beers— all these things.  –Patrick Stickles on receiving Ritalin at the age of four

Stickles’ pushed the limits on how much tragedy his collective fan base could endure, and in the wake of The Monitor’s massive success, Local Business seems underwhelming.  It is consistently referred to as +@’ weakest effort.  But despite all of the doom and gloom that was on Local Business, it still is a powerfully therapeutic record.  True Titus heads know that it is the band’s most underrated album because it showcases Stickles’ amazing ability to validate tough emotions with music.  He blends mania and depression just as well as the prior two albums.  Outwardly, the music is majestic and ballad-like, rife with power chords and song structures that lift up downtrodden spirits.  Combined with the storied, professorial and at times horrifically tragic lyrics, each song is a brief yet beauteous window into the human experience.

These explorations into the lyrics and music of +@ only offer a brief introduction to the band, but they will help in understanding their newest record, The Most Lamentable Tragedy.  A ninety-three minute, twenty-nine song rock opera about life with bipolar disorder, TMLT encompasses everything the band has ever done–plus some surprises–and puts it all into a narrative that is daunting yet satisfying.  It is a frighteningly intimidating and ambitious album, but Stickles would not want it any other way.

If making a piece of art is scary to you, that’s probably a good thing.

–Patrick Stickles

Part Two


2 thoughts on “The Bipolar Genius of Titus Andronicus Lyricist Patrick Stickles, Part One

  1. WOW. Me siento tan inadecuada cuando leo algunos de tus posts! Mucha informacion de temas que desconozco. Pero que bien escribes!! Lo releere con detencion y tratare de escuchar las canciones que mencionas para informarme. Felicitaciones, mi amor!


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