Low-fi punk rockers named after a William Shakespeare play follow up their Seinfeld referencing debut with an album that’s kinda about the American Civil War, but really uses said war as a way to explore themes of conflict and struggle, be it an 1862 sea battle or the hell of living in New Jersey, all with songs that average out to be over six minutes long with a 14 minute closing track that ends with, of all things, a bagpipe solo.
I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.
If that mammoth of a sentence turned you off from The Monitor, I apologize, because despite how ludicrous it sounds when you try to make it sound ludicrous, Titus Andronicus’ execution of such a tricky concept is surprisingly deft. For example. album opener “A More Perfect Union” features a quotation from a young Abraham Lincoln that can apply to the U.S. political climate of his day, ours, or even apply to us as people. That synchronization is what makes The Monitor a step above most big idea concept albums; matching the historical and the personal themes bolsters them each.
And more importantly, the music is fantastic. After all, fancy themes and clever quotations aren’t worth a damn if the music’s a mess. The band’s energy is phenomenal; even–hell, especially–on the longer cuts, they’re at their most engaging instrumentally. “A More Perfect Union” is the perfect opener for the hour plus that’s to follow: spirited drums, frenzied guitars, and frontman Patrick Stickles’ call-to-arms vocals.
The interesting thing with Titus Andronicus is that they marry simpler instrumentation and longer songs without any monotony or boredom. That’s not to say that they don’t take their time, but longer songs like “A Pot In Which To Piss” and “Four Score and Seven” pass much easier than they should. They’re rewarding, too; the interplay at the end of “A Pot In Which To Piss” (featuring piano, horns, and strings on top of the usual rock band set up) is a standout moment in a song full of them.
It’s an old cliche to say this, but The Monitor succeeds where it shoudl fall flat because it’s got heart. And unlike other Springsteen disciples The Gaslight Anthem, that heart is visceral; it’s damn near impossible to resist giving into the “You will always be a loser!” gang chant on “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” (really guys?), or the “The enemy is everywhere!” on “Titus Andronicus Forever”. Stickles’ lyrical pastiche of history, pop culture, and personal tales blend insecurity, exuberance, and defiance into realistic anthems; songs for people who bask in the joy of a rousing live show and stress over paying bills on the cold walk home that same night.
The Monitor isn’t without detractors, though. Stickles’ rough and unenunciated vocal style is a hard sell, and he tends to get buried in the album’s production. This is more of a note than a pro or con, but this isn’t an album that you can pick up, listen to once, and love. I’ve heard denser material, but this isn’t an immediately great record. It’s not that The Monitor is a challenge to listen to, but there are so many ideas in such a long amount of time that you’ll need a few listens just to process most of it. But even as you hear the closing notes on the expansive “The Battle of Hampton Roads” for the first time, you know there’s something there, even if you can’t name it. Four out of five stars.
tl;dr: The Monitor doesn’t avoid the sophomore slump as much as call us to scream in its face; 4/5.