Titus Andronicus named themselves after Shakespeare’s goriest play. Just as this would imply, their lo-fi punk rock sound abounds with vocal violence and instrumental incursions. The band’s 2008 debut album, “The Airing of Grievances,” was a blast of anger and furious rock infused with a surprising amount of humor. Lyrics and song titles, as well as the album’s title referencing the “Seinfeld” holiday of “Festivus,” were a foundation for the album’s unrelenting energy. “The Monitor” is very much a continuation of the band’s debut, still laden with lead singer Patrick Stickles’ vociferous shouts and loud yet boisterous guitar solos. It’s certainly understandable that the band’s sophomore release hasn’t deviated much from their original formula, and neither is it a problem, as Titus Andronicus’ sound is still fresh and exciting.
“The Monitor,” named after the Civil War ironclad ship, is ostensibly a concept album centered on living in our times and questioning identities, with a focus on the lingering importance of the Civil War. The songs run into each other without gaps as the group focus on building a narrative exploring the oppressive ideologies of living in America today, questioning our times with references to the context of the ideological shifts of the Civil War.
Though “The Monitor” takes up this new narrative, Titus Andronicus focus most on maintaining the anti-suburban message of their debut, describing their irreverent, sometimes self-loathing, enthusiasm for their roots. On “Theme From ‘Cheers,’” this irreverence takes the form of a drinking song dealing with youthful drowning of sorrows and building of friendships with alcohol and cigarettes. Other times, the band deals with their inability to escape personal repugnance, such as when they chant the mantra of “You will always be a loser” in “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future.”
“A More Perfect Union,” the album’s sprawling seven-minute opener, sets the tone for the narrative. Sickles sets in with loud vocals summarizing a journey out of Titus Andornicus’ native New Jersey into the American unknown. Cynically invoking Springsteen, he screams, “I’m looking for a new New Jersey / Cause tramps like us / Baby we were born to die.” Driving guitar riffs and drum beats move the song forward, as the song builds to a climaxing chorus. Lyrics continuously question the anxiety and angst of Stickles’ view of America, leading into the chants of “The enemy is everywhere” on the punk rock of the following transitional song, “Titus Andronicus Forever.”
While most songs are similarly aggressive, “Four Score and Seven” proceeds at a much slower pace. Over sparse guitar and cello, Sickles cries out against the divisions the narrator of the album encounters—“This is a war we can’t win / After 10,000 years it’s still us against them.” The song slowly crescendos into a restrained chorus followed by a battered-sounding yet triumphant brass band and an exultant guitar solo, as Sickles continues to scream “It’s still us against them.” Even when the aggression of the music is reduced, the forcefulness of the lyrical narrative remains.
The album’s 14-minute long closing song, “The Battle of Hampton Road,” is named after the Civil War clash between the Monitor and the Merrimack, but actually it focuses mainly on 20th Century concerns. Sickles proclaims “I’m destroying everything that would make me like Bruce Springsteen / So I’m going back to New Jersey / I do believe they’ve had enough of me.” By directly disavowing this connection, Titus Andronicus only strengthen it, making this album a statement about the New Jersey and America of our times, a more furious, sardonic Springsteen for the 2010s.
Although the overarching concept of “The Monitor” is certainly heavy, Titus Andronicus’s goal is extremely admirable, and leads to some grand compositions. Building on their past sound and working to solidify it, “The Monitor” showcases the band’s thoroughly entertaining vision. Though their talent may still be a little rough, and hasn’t yet fully come to fruition, the fury and power of Titus Andronicus is undeniable.