No one thinks anymore. The Internet and the Kindle has replaced sitting down with bound scraps of paper and actually absorbing the ideas between the lines. We’ve replaced the cultural value of reading with an endless cycle of blog posts about the state of Brett Favre’s un-retirement and pictures of cats in funny poses. Sure, the Internet serves its purpose as a tool to deliver information, but its difficult to absorb anything fully while listening to music, eating lunch and talking on your Blackberry.
After a cursory listen to Titus Andronicus’ The Airing of Grievances, you might be tempted to place Patrick Stickles, the band’s howling frontman, in that category. Don’t fall into that trap. Although Stickles often traffics in the same brand of suburban teen angst that has sunk many promising acts (“Fuck everyone/ Fuck me,” etc.), he tempers these moments of cliché with enormously powerful imagery and literary references that actually make sense. The intelligent portions of Grievances created a teetering push-and-pull with its more traditional punk lyricism. This establishes Stickles as an emotionally frustrated twenty-something whose secret intelligence is buried under layers of self-pity. It’s a position many of us can emphasize with, and it’s this emotional connection that lends The Airing of Grievances its power.
That is, if you can hear them. Stickles’ vocals are buried in the mix, thrown under the band’s thunderous rhythm section and aggressive guitar lines. Stickles is not a good singer technically, and he doesn’t have a particularly appealing bad voice either. The decision to keep his vocals underneath the music was a good one, as clean production and an emphasis on Stickles’ voice would be a quick route to disaster. Instead, placing the album’s thunderous guitar riffs front and center allows us to notice Stickles’ lyrics, but it also allows us to keep them at arm’s length if necessary. Someone once said that you could only really “get” The Replacements, a band Titus Andronicus resembles at times, if you got into them in high school. Titus Andronicus don’t suffer from that, as the production allows us to either place emotional barriers around the music or strain to hear the lyrics for Stickles’ frequently poetic phrases. Short lines jump out from the muddy mix, but it takes true concentration to hear the messily brilliant lyrics to “Arms Against Atrophy” against its hammering guitar line. You can get as close to or as far from this record as you want.
Titus Andronicus’ wholesale borrowing of Springsteen’s working-class ideology and the E-Street Band’s rhythmic attack is different from that of bands like The Hold Steady. Titus aren’t concerned with imitating classic rock musically as much as taking from it its ability to give hope to those who are living pitiably boring suburban lives. Although Titus title the two-part centerpiece of their album “No Future,” after the Sex Pistols’ famous declaration, their endearing fatalism seems to be a front for something more. Although Stickles never says “It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win,” his anger is tempered by a kind of hope. On “Titus Andronicus,” the album’s best song, Stickles screams “your life is over!” again and again. Maybe so, but let’s hope Titus Andronicus’ lifespan is just beginning. These New Jersey kids have made one of the best records this year.