Titus Andronicus started recording their third LP on April 1st, 2012, a date their liner notes call the “rare confluence” of Palm Sunday and April Fool’s Day. The epic entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the day when people think it’s a good idea to cover toilet seats with plastic wrap: could the band have picked a better duo of dates to commence the recording of Local Business?
Titus Andronicus’ first album, The Airing of Grievances, was punk for punk’s sake. They got a little more purposeful with 2010’s The Monitor, which placed them on the sidelines of a Civil War battlefield, playing garage rock accompaniments to Gettysburg and Antietam, subbing in for the usual drummer boy and bugler. Their subject matter becomes lighter and more palatable when paired with irreverent choruses, ragtag riffs and all-out guitar madness. That’s the way Patrick Stickles, frontman and lead singer, has pushed his band across the great divide that separates Too Serious from Just Fucking Around. Titus Andronicus make music that’s too serious even as they sound like they’re singing about the first thing that came to mind.
They’ve never been afraid of an anthem, and that tendency to craft scream-a-long choruses hasn’t changed between The Monitor to now. Local Business may be missing the epic historical bent that lent The Monitor extra credence in a crowded field of garage rock contenders, but in place of the brazen Civil War narrative is a more subtle meditation on being poor and ambitious in America. Same bravado, same howling pleas and familiar melodies, different Civil War. And really, it’s only their scrappy New Jersey style—Bruce Springsteen without the saxophone or the patriotism—that makes this sound anything like punk rock for the 47%. You can tell they’re not trying to make topical music, or meme-worthy music. Their portraits aren’t meant to be emblematic of a larger ill, and their catchphrases are not meant to be passed around like trading cards. When Stickles garnishes a song called “My Eating Disorder” with a chorus that goes “Spit it out/Spit it out/Spit it out,” he’s using twisted humor to resist the easy associations and classifications that go hand in hand with anthems.
He resists, and does it persistently. The album begins with a bleak existential statement: “Okay I think that we’ve now established everything is inherently worthless/And there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” Now what? Now he resists making too much of his bleak worldview; the best response for Stickles is not to give up on everything, but instead to breathlessly yell verse after verse of observation and opinion until a purpose is established. When the verses become monotonous, he begins using syncopated rhythms. When he gets too smart, he sings “I’m going insane” over and over. When he gets too dumb, he references “Elysian fields” and rhymes “masculine” with “mescaline.” When he sings too much about himself, he starts paying attention to a man in army fatigues who’s been choking on too much religion. When the punk rock starts to get tiresome, the band breaks into a woozy, hungover blues standard, or kicks into “(I Am) The Electric Man,” a Hold Steady-meets-Tom-Petty bar-band brawl.
And when it’s no longer appropriate to sing about poor people and bad living situations, about being bitterly and comically hopeless—that was all pretty much covered in the first line of “In A Small Body,” “Don’t tell me I was born free/That joke has been old since high school”—it’s time for something different. Last track “Tried To Quit Smoking” is the most deliciously warped ballad Titus Andronicus have ever recorded. Stickles is drained of emotion but still riled up. The band is on its last legs—it feels like they’ve recorded the whole album in chronological order and they’re teetering on the point of insanity, a specific musical kind of insanity, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” insanity.
What happens in the last ten minutes of the album is hard to explain. Stickles explains his bad behavior to a loved one: “It’s not that I didn’t mean to hurt you/I just didn’t care if I did.” He’s America’s worst nightmare, a self-aware man with no sense of remorse. He says he hates everyone, expresses his desire to kill Ronald Reagan, then sums up his mistakes with one killer, bitter annoucement: “I made my bed, now I’m fucking in it.” “What I did, I did,” he sings. “What I am, I am.” The band falls apart. Someone wheezes through a harmonica. Everything is inherently worthless. We’re all just fucking around. Wasn’t it fun? Didn’t you have a great time?