It’s still us against them. For Titus Andronicus, it always will be. From the nihilistic rants of debut album The Airing of Grievances, the New Jersey Springsteen-bred punk rockers have never shied away from conflict or confrontation. Rather, they welcomed it with a million middle fingers, and sing-along refrains of “Your life is over!” and “Fuck everyone! Fuck me!” Along those same lines, it wasn’t much of a surprise that their next album, The Monitor, used the Civil War as a central conceit. Yet for a ragged, raucous punk band, such a vast, studio-crafted masterwork featuring more than 30 musicians and narrations of writings from Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln, not to mention a 13-minute closing track with a bagpipe solo, most certainly came as a surprise. And yet, amid all the layers of overdubs and character sketches, the spirit of Titus Andronicus came through loud and clear in first track “A More Perfect Union,” frontman Patrick Stickles re-extending those digits with an allusive call to arms: “Tramps like us, baby we were BORN TO DIE!”
It’s not quite the same me-against-the-world spirit coming out in Local Business opening track “Ecce Homo” when Stickles states, “I think by now we’ve established everything is inherently worthless.” He delivers it with a more restrained and sardonic tone, even a little tongue in cheek, but the spirit of a man with the preternatural ability to detect bullshit lingers, and on Local Business, it’s at the center of a wild and uproarious party.
Ugly truths, cringe-worthy anecdotes and brutal indictments continue to play a starring role on Local Business, but in a sharp diversion from its predecessor, there is no arsenal of guest musicians or high-minded mythology. This, much like the band’s debut, is a punk rock album made by five guys scratching it all out in the studio. It feels spontaneous and incendiary, fun and sometimes completely ridiculous (see: “Food Fight”). But where expansive production was sacrificed in favor of this punk rock party, keen observational wit and biting, frequently hilarious cynicism hold fast.
Stickles’ aim is pointed at any number of targets, from consumers lacking in perspective to his own flaws, foibles and afflictions. It probably doesn’t hurt that a handful of pretty fucked up incidents occurred on the way to making this album. The band witnessed a fatal car wreck in Oregon, which forms the backstory of “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With the Flood of Detritus.” It’s unsurprisingly upbeat and catchy as hell, yet the lyrics tell a much more harrowing story of horrific tragedy, only to be met with annoyed drivers who “sit and grit their teeth at that which comes between them and their coffee.” And in another bizarre moment of facing mortality, Stickles was treated for a 200-volt electric shock last year, which inspired the most infectious tune on the album, “(I Am the) Electric Man.” It’s a bit less detailed, but amid its repeated call-and-response chorus, Stickles gets straight to the point of the matter: “It makes it so hard to hold on to the metal can.” What’s more, Stickles even takes on his own eating disorder, striking a tone somewhere between personal responsibility and struggling with one’s own biology and psychology, sneering “My eating disorder’s inside of me” in a frustrated struggle for control.
There are moments of hope that arise on Local Business, though often undercut with slices of harsh reality. The heroic “In a Big City,” for instance, pairs the statement “All my dreams are coming true” with “Some of the smoke from the other room is seeping through.” But in all of the mischief and chaos that life hands us, and in the face of any adversary, Titus Andronicus still serves to reinforce the idea that one can stand up to it, and maybe even score a small victory in the process. Stickles sums it up best in “Still Life With Hot Deuce and Silver Platter“: “I’ll die if I don’t try.”