You may be tempted, at various points throughout A Productive Cough, to ask yourself, “Is he fucking with me?” The he in question is Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles, and he is certainly not averse to fucking with people, especially his listening audience. (Lest you forget this is the dude who frequently attests to be under the control of an evil robot, and while sometimes I think it’s a metaphor for his self-professed manic depression, sometimes I think he wants us to think that.) However, despite the many layers of pop-culture allusion and occasionally jarring jauntiness of this record, I believe it’s ultimately driven by the same sincerity and (sometimes painful) emotional honesty that has been the consistent through-line of a band well known for throwing curveballs.
More than anything else, the album’s minimization of guitar will probably throw some fans for a loop. All of these seven songs are piano-based, and while that isn’t entirely new for Titus Andronicus, the absence of the punk riffs so prominent on all four previous records is definitely unexpected.
But this sure as hell isn’t an album of ballads (“Crass Tattoo” notwithstanding). It is as angry and volatile as anything from the wildest parts of the band’s masterpieces The Monitor and The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Instead of the punk rock/Springsteen/Pogues musical grammar of those albums, A Productive Cough adopts a sort of juke-joint rockabilly sound, with considerable similarity to the mid-1960s Bob Dylan records that it recalls in places (more on that in a minute). There are plenty of horns—occasionally deployed in a manner that could be perceived as hipster irony but I personally think is sincere—and some hints of twelve-bar blues chord structure here and there.
Stickles and Titus Andronicus draw a lot of inspiration from setting—Jersey throughout their oeuvre, Boston on The Monitor and now New York City on A Productive Cough. There are details here of life as a messed-up late twenty/thirtysomething that those of us who’ve been through that in a big city know: the half-camaraderie, half-antagonism developed with the corner store owner who sells Stickles booze and cigs (“Above the Bodega”) and the peculiar malaise of subways and buses (“Mass Transit Madness”). And as you’d expect, there’s the album-essential state-of-Stickles-mind manifesto, “Number One (In New York),” full of meta self deprecation more vicious than anything by Josh Tillman—”Declare myself president of the emptiness, call me Rembrandt of dancing on the precipice, eleven years in and trying to stay relevant.”
What, exactly, is to be made of the Dylan pastiche? “I’m Like a Rolling Stone” is part faithful cover, part self-destruction, and in its waning minutes a bizarre almost free-associative rant/name-checking of the current Rolling Stones lineup? It’s not a mocking parody, because Titus Andronicus clearly draws influence from both Dylan and the Stones, but at the same time it plays like a joke that only the band truly appreciates. As a song, it’s pretty good, but that aspect of it makes it an arguable misstep for the album. The other debatable error on the record is “Home Alone,” which basically repeats the same sentence—“Nobody’s home, I’m home alone”—over a loping crunchy garage rock groove for about 8 minutes.
The heart of A Productive Cough comes early, in the second track “Real Talk.” It’s a barroom singalong that captures, in the bluesy repetition of its lyrics and sloshed rock and roll rhythms, a portrait of Trump-era disaffection and chemical dropout that rings truer than many portrayals of this strange time in which we live. A Productive Cough is not a perfect album, or even necessarily one that will drive countless critics or fans to sing its praises. But there is a simultaneous urgency and feeling of defeat running through it, not unlike our contradictory contemporary atmosphere. You may be thrown by a loop for this record and wonder what exactly you’re listening to, but you won’t forget it any time soon.