Let’s compare two artists releasing albums this week: Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar and New Jersey indie rock band Titus Andronicus. In one track on his major label debut, Lamar inhabits the braggadocio of youth with a chorus, “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours.” On Titus Andronicus’ third album, lead singer Patrick Stickles envies this youthful conceit, a time when you have all the ambition to make a difference but “your dick’s too short to fuck the world.” Two very different artists — both nostalgic for their unencumbered youth — but one plays that character in real time while the other looks on in envy, in the process strangely glorifying a small penis. While schtupping the globe was a random trend in music this week, you couldn’t find two more divergent ways of covering the same topic.
Such is the case with Titus Andronicus, a band that, over the past seven years, hasn’t encountered a battle worth winning or a relationship worth saving. The band’s 2010 album The Monitor is an epic Civil War parable transposed onto the boring lives of modern youth. The album is so rife with creativity, ambition and self-loathing, it was my favorite album of that year. It’s a terrible cliché, but The Monitor got me through some hard times, man. It did the impossible of rallying the lazy into fist pumps and beer swigs, and no indie rock album has been quite as clever or effective since.
As if addressing the massive shadow that The Monitor cast, Stickles begins Local Business with this couplet: “Okay, I think we’ve established everything is inherently worthless / And there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” The line makes a clear distinction in the Titus Andronicus saga, but those who have heard The Monitor will notice recurrent musical and lyrical threads between the two albums. Comparisons between Local Business and The Monitor are inevitable but not limiting. Local Business is still clearly indebted to the album that preceded it, but its success is only enhanced as a result.
Where the musical touchstones of The Monitor were The Pogues and other Irish folk bands, Local Business is more indebted to ’90s indie rock bands like Weezer and Dinosaur Jr. and the glam and classic rock bands that influenced them. “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)” thrashes with the minor chord onslaught of punk bands like The Buzzcocks and Guided by Voices. “Food Fight!” is literally New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis” condensed into a minute, “My Eating Disorder” uses Thin Lizzy-like twin guitar harmonies in its final few minutes and don’t think I didn’t notice the “El Scorcho” reference in the beginning of final track, “Tried to Quit Smoking.” The galvanizing on Local Business is still effective, but feels rather terrestrial.
Stickles similarly shifts his lyrical focus. Where The Monitor was a barbed spear aimed at the kind of irrevocable maturity that Judd Apatow makes movies about, Local Business is more of a commentary on Stickles’ peers. On first track “Ecce Homo,” Stickles snidely undercuts the us-against-them mentality of The Monitor. “Yes, it’s us against them again,” he sings. “Smashing the system into the dirt / Now we got more brown M&M’s / Put the whole thing onto a t-shirt.” Maybe it’s me projecting, but I see so much of Local Business as a diatribe against the hypocrisy of youth movements, a generation more interested in trendy protests and symbolic victories than meaningful action. Stickles even drops the H-word at one point (rhymes with “blipster”), and while I mildly loath the descriptor, Stickles’ consistent lyrical acumen earns the right. He still roots for the outcasts and dropouts who have always made up Titus Andronicus’ battle hymns, but Local Business takes more time to shake off the straggling imposters.
This nuance is most apparent on final track “Tried to Quit Smoking.” Stickles starts off by admitting, “It’s not that I wanted to hurt you / I just didn’t care if I did.” Up to this point, Stickles has said some pretty terrible things, but they have all been directed at himself. That line in “Tried” is the most mean-spirited Stickles has ever written, and it leaves things uncertain as the song continues as a normal ballad. Where The Monitor ended in a triumphant battle, Local Business ends ambiguously, unsure as to whether we’re on Stickles’ side this time.
And that’s a brilliant decision. Local Business isn’t the flawless classic The Monitor is, but it doesn’t have to be. Titus Andronicus shows that it is uncompromising enough to be the antithesis of the groups Stickles rallies against. Local Business clearly establishes Titus Andronicus as the band of the decade to beat.