They have previous with daring concepts – second album ‘The Monitor’ used the American Civil War as a springboard for frontman Patrick Stickles’s introspective yet relatable lyrics – and ‘TMLT’ is a return to that sort of style. Their last outing, 2012’s underappreciated ‘Local Business’ stripped the band back to its essentials; in contrast, its successor is Titus Andronicus writ large. It contains all the ferocity that you’d expect from a band named after Shakespeare’s most violent work, making musical references to the likes of Lou Reed, Desaparecidos, Fucked Up and evenMeat Loaf. It’s a sprawling work that takes its cues from rock, punk, glam, prog, hardcore and more besides, using the album format to its full potential.
The unnamed protagonist of ‘TMLT’ both is and isn’t Stickles. We meet Our Hero in ‘No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant’ as a broken man who’s fighting a losing battle with the highs and lows of manic depression; by basing the central character on himself and drawing inspiration from his own mental health struggles, he’s able to blur the lines between fiction and reality within the narrative, adding a further layer of complexity to proceedings. The central story concerns Our Hero meeting his doppelgänger (identical in appearance though opposite in disposition) and being led on an explorative journey through past lives and new loves, while trying to keep himself together in the process: an album about stability, insanity and everything in between.
The record is an extended metaphor for trying to weather the storms brought on by mental illness, and its lyrics are as layered as one would expect; Shakespeare, the Rolling Stones, Egyptian deities and even Titus Andronicus’s past work are among the myriad of lyrical references strewn throughout the album. It can be a lot to take in, at times, and due to the segueing and stitching together of much of the record, some tracks just won’t work out of context. Adaptations of Catholic hymns, Daniel Johnston & The Pogues covers, a choral rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and even a rebooted take on ‘Titus Andronicus Vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)’ from ‘Local Business’, retitled ‘I’m Going Insane’ to soundtrack Our Hero’s descent into madness in Act V – all of these are parts of the whole and won’t stand up as well on their own, but contribute to the verbose narrative when listened to in the proper context.
If you don’t have the hour and a half necessary for fully immersing yourself in this record, there’s plenty of room to manouevre. Lead single ‘Dimed Out’ is three minutes of furious rock that pulls off a key change mid-way through like it’s nothing, while ‘Mr. E. Mann’ is a mid-tempo, melodic gem whose optimism, appropriately enough, borders on manic. ’(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID’, meanwhile, is an epic, swaggering rocker that stretches to 9 minutes in length, the storm after the calm of the story’s intermission and ‘Sun Salutation’, kicking off a run of fantastic songs that culminates in their cover of The Pogues’s ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’, an urgent, desperate reworking that acts as a pivot point in the narrative, setting up the last act brilliantly.
Sufferers of manic depression have to deal with extremes – euphoric highs and crushing lows – and the album’s structure reflects this impressively. For every moment of catharsis like ‘Fatal Flaw’, there is a counterpart that’s opposite in disposition, a dirge like ‘More Perfect Union’ or the suicidal urges of ‘No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming’. The search for stability is what drives ‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy’, and though it may prove too much for some, those who persevere will be richly rewarded – an oddly fitting statement when applied to suffering from mental illness. Rarely has tragedy sounded this triumphant; rarely has losing your mind sounded like so much fun.
‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy’ by Titus Andronicus is out now on Merge Records.
Words by Gareth O’Malley (@vetusmemoria)