This is part two in a series of posts exploring the motivations behind American punk rock lyricist and lead singer Patrick Stickles. Part one delved into the history of his band Titus Andronicus and gave a brief introduction into their first three albums. This part will focus on their newest release, The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Read part one here.
Titus Andronicus (+@) is no stranger to music that at first glance seems bombastic and overzealous. Their claim to fame was, after all, a concept album about how the U.S. Civil War is like living in New Jersey suburbia in the wake of a breakup. As silly and incompatible as that sounds, The Monitor’s success ended up proving that there were many who identified with +@’ brand of cathartic self loathing, productive flaw exploring and ostentatious yet resigned commitment. A band that is named after Shakespeare’s most infamous play, however, is still a tough sell (to put it mildly) and their most recent album relies heavily on their base. It is not a work of art that attempts to pamper to wider audience, but appeals greatly as a reverent punk rock deity for genre die hards.
Probably with that in mind, +@ announced very early that their plan was to write a 30 song behemoth about a protagonist suffering from bipolar disorder. The concept album has origins in classical music (i.e. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) and bands such as The Who, Styx, Green Day, Genesis, and most famously Pink Floyd all showed that the medium could be well received, despite their intimidatingly ambitious nature. By throwing down the gauntlet and stating that he essentially aimed to match or better such darlings as The Who’s Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall he challenged himself into expressing his most powerful emotions as a musician, artist and human being. He invited all the scrutiny and skepticism that came with that ambition in the hopes that it brought out the best in his songwriting.
It worked. Just like The Monitor five years ago, Stickles and +@ have proved that no one is their rock opera peer and that they are the pinnacle of punk rock story telling. The Most Lamentable Tragedy (TMLT) is exploratory as well as a familiar home. It includes new tricks such as covers, choral arrangements and a chord organ recording on a cassette tape. And of course there are the conflicting fault exposing lyrics embedded in triumphant anthems delivered in Stickles’ trademark raging yet vindicating vocals.
Designed in five acts, TMLT is congested and risks being forgotten among tiresome clichés. But +@ was never meant for the lazy music listener, and with the help of copious footnoted lyrics (provided by Stickles himself) the original story of a man with bipolar disorder is told.
**********NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD**********
TMLT begins with a multi-layered unison note which gets drowned out in a mother chord. This peaceful then sonically harsh transition represents the hero awakening from a blissful sleep and realizing with immense dread that a new day is upon him. After the brief opening instrumental, +@ erupts in a majestic guitar riff and Stickles begins the opera by announcing his resigned mood, “Some days start with an earthquake / the bed shakes until it breaks / and I hate to be awake.” With this opening statement, he immediately announces his psychological illness without alienating his wider audience: the dread in which we wake up to face the routine stresses of the day is a universal emotion.
The following song “Stranded (On My Own)” describes Stickles’ addiction to Ritalin. In order to even get out of bed to fulfill his responsibilities and overcome his anxieties, Stickles takes all sorts of drugs. In his own words:
“I was obligated to participate in Titus Andronicus’ National Business Tour, promoting our then-current release ‘Local Business,’ which had been recorded when the Major Depressive Episode was just a baby. This tour proved to be a blessing – I think that if I had stayed in exile out in New Jersey any longer, I might have stayed there forever, on one side of the ground or another. Unable to know that at the time, I slogged through the whole trip, clinging to my Bupropion and Abillify and my Clonazepam, thinking that if I could just keep some kind of equilibrium and ‘just not lose it,’ I could make it through this terrifying endeavor.”
And that’s only track number three. The next track “Lonely Boy” is weirdly catchy for a +@ song has the most sing-along potential out of anything on the album. Expressing his desire to be alone, Stickles sings about how other people are selfish and arrogant pricks. “Hearing people hearing themselves talk / I tell you those are fingernails where there should’ve been chalk / I heard this one guy tell this other one to suck his cock / And he was the richest, smartest guy on the block.” Against societies misgivings, +@ unfurls a white flag and declares the crippling weight of materialism and patriarchal power structures too much to handle.
I just want to be alone
I don’t wanna drown amongst the droves of drones
I don’t wanna hear that I’m what I own, oh no
I don’t wanna feel my Y-chromosome
Tracks seven through twelve make up the second act, in which the protagonist emerges from his depression. They are easily the album’s best, and as much as I want to, I will not delve into the details. Experiencing them for the first time is a gift.
The last three acts make up the second half of the album, and that is where the protagonist struggles to come to terms with his “normalcy,” encounters romance, and again slides into a deep depression.
And when he finally ventures into the world, it is imperfect, even repulsive. After briefly referencing his eating disorder as the instigator in his going out in “(S)HE SAID, (S)HE SAID,” he meets a girl who he is attracted to. He rather vulgarly and pervertedly asks her if she’d like to sleep with him over the course of two verses (she agrees), but the sad and revealing bit comes later. “You didn’t understand a single thing (s)he said” Stickles repeats over and over again. What the story’s hero needs is love and human connection, but he doesn’t know how to ask for it.
The subtleties of reading in between the dense lines of Stickles writing is one of the reasons why +@ and other pretentious rock groups are not mainstream today. “(S)HE SAID, (S)HE SAID” is a great song, but its nine minute length combined with the sly lyrical connections to earlier songs (“My Eating Disorder,” from Local Business) make it tedious for most, especially first time listeners. And with its odd pacing and darker chord structures, the latter half of TMLT test the will of even the most diligent Titus Heads.
In his review for The Guardian, music critic Alexis Petridis stated that TMLT is an honorable effort in the age of the playlist. It contains “good songs ripe for cherry-picking and tearing out of context,” but overall is a fractured and poorly paced drama who’s sheer length is wearying and “widely over-inflated.” What is particularly striking about this critique is how insensitive and uninformed it is. TMLT is a rock opera about living life with bipolar disorder. Life by experience is a series of up and downs. For those who live with mental illness, their emotional flights are followed by sometimes intensely harsh groundings. And they have no control over it. If +@’ new album were as cohesive and fluid as Petridis wants, then he may as well just put on a boring Arctic Monkeys record and call it a day.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy ends with the same unison note with which it started. For those who think that such a clichéd move is corny and lame, just know that it is Stickles’ experience. He lives an uncontrollable cycle of mania and depression, and when one ends, the other begins. As tiresome as that may be, that is the way life is.