Titus Andronicus have found their Nietzsche. “I think that now we’ve established everything is inherently worthless,” proclaims lead singer Patrick Stickles in the first words of the New Jersey indie/punk band’s new album, “Local Business.” Stickles may be convinced, but he’s missing the fact that the album is about as far away from being inherently worthless as possible. Instead, it’s a triumphant success—a riveting, confrontational album in which immense energy collides with wrenchingly bitter lyrics to produce magnificent results.
On “Local Business,” Titus Andronicus mostly stick to the musical formula of their critically acclaimed Civil War concept album “The Monitor” (2010): taking vaguely Irish and 19th-century American-sounding major key melodies and building them into riff-based rock reminiscent of early British punk. However, this time around, they ramp up the intensity. The guitar riffs are even more blistering, Eric Harm’s drumming is even more torrential, and Stickles’ snarling vocals produce an extraordinary number of decibels and still hold a tune at the same time.
The band’s unparalleled musical energy is a main factor in elevating “Local Business” beyond standard three-chord rock. The group thrusts each song in your face, blocking out all other sensory stimulation: the album is probably the worst background music of all time. This is best exemplified on two of the album’s standout songs—“Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter” and “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood of Detritus.” Neither song possesses an incredibly unique melody (the swaggering blues-rock coda that closes “Still Life” is imported directly from E Street), but the ferocity with which Titus Andronicus tear into them is singularly infectious. These are songs you’ll happily destroy your speakers on—the louder you play them, the better they sound.
However, “Local Business” gets even better when Stickles’ lyrics get personal. The album’s best song, “My Eating Disorder,” is about Stickles’ lifelong battle with selective eating disorder and features brutally personal lyrics throughout: “It’s probably easier just to eat at home / Better I should wait until I’m all alone / Then I stuff myself until I explode.” When this painful topic is coupled with Titus Andronicus’ musical energy, Stickles’ struggle feels all the more tangible. Album closer “Tried to Quit Smoking” is a slow ballad in which Stickles howls some of the bitterest lyrics he’s ever penned: “It’s not that I wanted to hurt you / I just didn’t care if I did… It is not that I do not love you / It’s just that I hate everyone.” The band’s choice to include these lyrics in a ballad, rather than in an up-tempo song, forces the listener to confront what Stickles’ difficult words.
Aside from “Tried to Quit Smoking,” the album’s other slow songs have slightly more mixed results. Because Titus Andronicus’ energy is such an integral part of their identity, tempering it is a risky move. The stylistic switch pays off on “(I Am The) Electric Man,” written by Stickles in the hospital after he was accidentally and severely electrocuted during a rehearsal. The song, definitely more of a hand-clapper than a head-banger, explores funky new frontiers for the band, featuring R&B-style backup singers with which Stickles has hilarious back-and-forths. However, the band is much less successful on the tepid and overlong “In A Small Body,” which, at six minutes, lacks both energy and powerful lyrics.
However, this is a small quibble. “Local Business” is superb, a musical achievement that’s at its best when it deals with, well, local business—Stickles’ eating disorder, electrocution, and the poor soul on the receiving end of “Tried to Quit Smoking.” On their third album, Titus Andronicus have achieved exactly what one of their track titles proclaims—a third round knockout.