Nearly two years ago, Titus Andronicus played what can only be called a generous gig at the VFW. In a promotional interview before that show, singer Patrick Stickles told the Missoulian that he was writing and recording a rock opera about manic depression.
For anyone with personal experience of the subject, those are the two most frightening words in the English language: rock opera. But Titus Andronicus—a group that shares its name with not just a Shakespeare play but also a fictional band in a Thomas Pynchon novel—is not afraid of pretension. Almost two years after he threatened to do it, Stickles has released the 29-track, 90-minute triple LP The Most Lamentable Tragedy, and it is good.
"Good" can mean different things by the contradictory standards of punk rock, and The Most Lamentable Tragedy violates plenty of them. It contains not one but two silent tracks, plus the single tone that is the opener. Like Fucked Up, Titus Andronicus' construction of the genre does not demand minimalism, and that's probably enough to alienate purists. But maximalism—of expression, of emotion, of noise and of ambition—is what has made their project interesting since the beginning.
In retrospect, 2008's The Airing of Grievances was conventional: eleven songs, most of them with anthem choruses, all of them about angst. Sure, one was titled "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,'" but that kind of literate posturing would come to feel restrained in context of the band's later work.
Perhaps the definitive Titus Andronicus release is 2010's The Monitor, a concept album that uses the Civil War as a metaphor for Stickles' move to Boston and subsequent breakup with his girlfriend. It's as great as it sounds, a snarling animal dusted with references. Its first track, "A More Perfect Union," begins with Okey Canfield Chenoweth reading a quote from Lincoln and progresses through Stickles' declaration that "tramps like us, baby we were born to die!"the last word extending to a laryngitic scream.
- Titus Andronicus’ new rock opera is so punk it doesn’t care if it’s trying too hard.
That admixture of high and low culture, art sensibility and lived experience, is what punk rock does best. The conceit that punk must be simple is itself a pretension. Rather than attack it, Stickles has consistently used that pretension to justify wild, almost comic ambition. The Most Lamentable Tragedy is the apotheosis of this strategy, an album so punk it doesn't care if it's trying too hard.
Despite its sprawling structure, Most Lamentable is constructed around three-minute songs. They're hooky and tight, and the guitar tone has continued the progression toward classic-rock cleanliness that began with 2012's Local Business. Titus Andronicus keeps sounding more like The Clash, and Most Lamentable is their Sandinista!.
The same diversity of expression informs both. The bridge midway through "More Perfect Union"a nine-minute leviathan with nearly the same title as the aforementioned Monitor track—sounds like T. Rex covering Danzig. "Lookalike" has a scream-along chorus reminiscent of Titus Andronicus' first album. And "(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID" touches on all the old theme—seating disorders, panicked screaming, narcissism—that have kept the band infuriating, even as it fascinates, all these years.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a capstone album, distilling the essence of what makes Titus Andronicus so weird as it revisits the signal elements of their work. It is their Huckleberry Finn, or maybe their Berlin. In an interview with Grantland's Steven Hyden, Stickles suggested that this might be the last Titus Andronicus album. It's a threat he's made before, but this time it feels earned. You can criticize what he's done with The Most Lamentable Tragedy, but it would be hard to ask him to do more.