Why, exactly, did Titus Andronicus make a 90-minute, 29-song double album about mental illness? The New York Times’s Joe Coscarelli recently put the question to the singer Patrick Stickles: “Did you specifically make this record for people suffering from manic depression?”
“Mostly just for one person that does,” Stickles replied.
This is both a typical and dangerous thing to say for anyone whose art rails against the meaningless of existence, the demons of the soul, and the hypocrisy of society. Stickles has a very specific mental illness, and not everyone can relate to it. But when, on the opening jam of this new album, he screams “I hate to be awake,” well, anyone not thrilled to go to work in the morning can, in fact, relate to that.
In 2015, even the most inward-focused artists have to work with an awareness that expressions of misery in modern pop culture can be reproduced, packaged, and sold for far more banal purposes. Kurt Cobain stands as the enduring symbol of what happens when personal disaffection goes mainstream; “Teenage angst has paid off well,” he sneered on the opening track of In Utero, the album that followed Nirvana’s explosion into superstardom and preceded his suicide.
Titus Andronicus doesn’t stand much risk of having its music swallowed up by the American mainstream. Even if loud guitar music were still commercially viable, this particular brand—pop hooks, punk casing, prog ambition, with a singer who somehow can scream and gurgle at the same time—would not sound good at the mall. But the New Jersey band has built an ultra-fervent fan base in its 10-year existence, perhaps becoming the perfect postmodern rage maker: self-aware and positively giddy about the urge to burn the world down.
The band’s Shakespearean name, and the titles of its latest album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, embrace the idea of performing for an audience. So does the music, packed with slogans seemingly lab-tested to be printed on T-shirts and references to other Titus Andronicus songs. Keeping all the interconnections straight isn’t unlike attempting to track all the wormholes between plotlines in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Meanwhile, the lyrics are blackly comic to the point of nihilism. The band’s third album, 2012’s Local Business, opened with Stickles’s own self-parodying version of “teenage angst has paid off well”: “Okay, I think by now we have established that everything is inherently worthless / and nothing in the universe has any kind of objective purpose.”
Now the band has released its most po-mo puzzle box of anguish yet. Stickles has described The Most Lamentable Tragedy as a rock opera and has annotated the lyrics at Genius.com; judging by the band’s Twitter feed, which is filled with retweeted praise, the ambition has gone over quite well with its biggest fans. It’s not hard to see why. As before, the group rummages through classic-rock styles with an eye for entertainment: hardcore cartwheeling pauses for a surf-rock drums solo on “No Future Part IV”; the E Street singalong of “Lonely Boy” melts into ragtime freak out; the words “I’m going insane” pop up from time to time as a sort of bizarrely radio-ready hook. The only big change from before is that for however sprawling the track list is, the songs themselves are unusually compact—most end before the five-minute mark.
Given that the album’s lyrics are about a man struggling with manic depression, the songs accordingly swing between dirges and material that’ll make you want to do dozens of push-ups. As for the narrative, it’s strangely generic: There’s a “lonely boy” struggling with an unnameable “something,” turning to drugs and sex, and confronting a psychological doppelgänger. The sole surprise for me was to hear Stickles find some solace in the last real song, the low-fi accordion tune “Stable Boy,” where he reasons that death is eternal so he might as well be alive for now.
Is it brilliant? Here’s where I have to admit that even though I’m an enormous fan of the band’s first three albums, something about Tragedy doesn’t quite click. The ingredients are all there, but save the id explosion of “Dimed Out” and the heavy-metal noir of “(S)He Said / (S)He Said,” nothing here has come close to making a permanent mark on my brain in the way that previous Titus Andronicus songs have. It might be that Stickles has broken up his emotions into discrete bursts—pepped-up one track, despondent another—instead swirling them together for glorious 10-minute tantrums. Or it might just be that the melodies aren’t as sharp. I’m not sure.
But I do know that there’s something lovely and generous to the effort on display. You see it in the longform music video they released for the album; Stickles shimmies and screams with backup dancers performing a maniacal Monster Mash. The idea underlying everything—the visuals, the raucous music, the extravagant complaints of the lyrics—is there’s freedom to be had by acknowledging the void; there’s fun in wallowing. And not just for Stickles. In his Times interview, he eventually confessed that he wouldn’t mind if “some young person that’s as troubled as I was five or six or three years ago, two years ago, last year, this month” takes comfort in all the noise. No doubt, more than a few will.