I can pinpoint the exact moment when my musical life changed. Throughout college I listened to a healthy dose of whatever top 40 garbage was being played at parties and in my quiet moments would throw on classic rock, grunge and 90s alt-rock — my true renaissance years. I was the idiot who would think it was clever to poorly and exceedingly drunkenly cover In Bloom during karaoke, the running gag that I was the contrarian I-Hate-Everything-Because-It’s-Popular-And-You’re-An-Idiot-For-Liking-This.
The exception to this was Bruce Springsteen, the Chosen Son of New Jersey, our lord and savior whose name is venerated by all who come from the Garden State. Joined with Taylor Ham and the New Jersey Devils, Springsteen finished the triumvirate of the true institutions of the state.
After college, back in 2010, when I moved back to New Jersey, on Tuesday nights I would go to a small bar in Livingston, NJ, with my best friends Tim and his brother Matt. We would shoot the shit, drink cheap domesticos, and eat our body weights in disco fries. Together we made up the Money Crew, a nickname borne out of a discussion to create the absolute worst twitter handles possible.
Eventually we would all go our separate ways (I moved to Allentown for work, Tim moved to York, PA, for a job, Matt went back to college). The point of this story was that the three of us were living the ultimate New Jersey experience, a Springsteenian threesome of weary suburban youngsters trying to escape the doldrums of the swamps of New Jersey and we did it the only way we knew — crown and diets to wash down the ennui of unemployment.
On these Tuesdays, we would run the jukebox, throwing dollars away to ironically play classics like Baker Street and Against the Wind. As we were usually the only ones left in the bar no one ever really seemed to mind (and let’s be real here, Baker Street is a fucking banger).
One Tuesday, in his “Chuck, it’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!” moment, Tim threw on a song I didn’t recognize. Beginning with a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address — “If destruction be our lot we ourselves must be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.” This was followed by seven minutes of pounding rock and relatable lyrics.
What the hell was this?
It was Titus Andronicus.
Like many others, my first introduction to Titus Andronicus, founded by lead singer Patrick Stickles in scenic Glen Rock, NJ, was their second album, The Monitor, a genius 10-track tour-de-force named after the USS Monitor, an ironclad ship that faced off against the Confederacy’s Merrimack at the Battle of Hampton Roads– this was a punk rock concept album using the Civil War of all things as an inspiration and framing device. It’s risky and hard hitting, lyrically introspective yet bombastic.
It would be unfathomable that something like this would be not only a major hit but also easily one of the best albums of the past ten years. There was simply nothing like it, seemingly this is the kind of album that only Stickles and Titus could get away with, which, in order to understand why, we’ll have to go back to 2008.
This was the year Titus Andronicus released their first album, The Airing of Grievances. This album was a moderate success and an indie darling; it launched their name into the New Jersey music scene. Its sound was a lo-fi DIY mix of punk rock; its lyrical content pure existential anger. With song titles like Joset of Nazareth’s Blues and Upon Viewing Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” it was clear that Stickles was at times pushing the envelope of overwroughtness.
Yet, to dismiss this work as being simply contrived would betray the earnestness and honesty of the lyrical content. Stickles, a sufferer of Bipolar disorder, clearly puts every inch of his blood and sweat into each and every song, his candidness about a lifetime of dissatisfaction and disappointment — most certainly the most relatable of all musical themes.
It would be impossible for Titus to live up to the expectations of the epic Monitor and they tried with their third effort, Local Business. It was a decent album, more of a throwback to their first than the bombastic blockbuster of their second. Every fan and critic wanted The Monitor 2 but deep down but Local Business was clearly not that.
In my eyes, this was refreshing. It would have been much easier to try to repeat success rather than move on and try something new which is admirable.
I think this is why Local Business was disappointing to some — despite the attempt at lo-fi earnestness, the album itself was at times an uneven overproduced mess, which betrayed that DIY essence they were going for. Their singles’ music videos were shot inside assorted, well, local mom and pop businesses. Seriously, compare the following two examples of my personal favorite song of the album Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape and the Flood of Detritus between the demo and what we got for the album version and figure out which you prefer — I’m almost certain it will be the former.
I really believe that Titus Andronicus is best experienced live. They’re a completely different experience — their shows are relatively intimate experiences full of fans who are ready to rock. This is where they are truly at their best — when you can truly hear the strain of Stickles’ voice, a resounding reminder of the strain of our boring, awful, and Sisyphusian experiences. His voice is untalented, unrefined, yet truly unequaled, a true throwback to the days when all you needed was a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, four power chords, and the world was yours.
More importantly, it represents the honest punk rock ethos of modern suffering and the existential meandering of the millennial experience. The music and experience of Titus Andronicus is resonating because at the end of the day our lives are difficult and overwrought — the violent chaoticness of Stickles’ writing is an affirmation that we are not alone in our experiences.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy, their most recent and fourth album released last year, is a 93-minute epic, in a way a return to their blockbuster Monitor roots, this time a rock opera about Bipolar disorder. Not often a topic so honestly discussed and covered, TMLT represents the best and worst of what Titus is all about. Sure, it’s about 15 minutes too long but at the end of the day the whole is such an experience that I truly believe that everyone should give it a listen at least once.
The summer TMLT came out, I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder myself. No single work of music has ever resonated with me like this album did — from start to finish I believed for the first time that holy shit I am not alone. This is again thanks to the candor of Stickles’ lyrics and his ability to transpose his own clear personal angst onto the page for others and brings comfort to those living similar existences.
This was probably the darkest time of my life and I can say with full confidence that the album saved me. The resounding truth of what the disorder is like and the destructive spirals one can fall down are meticulously and accurately discussed openly in such a way where the personal experiences of the narrator were virtually indistinguishable from my own.
Perhaps the autobiographical honesty of Stickles is what gives them such staying power. I’ve met him at a few shows — once he called me up on stage and threatened to beat me up on the stage at Maxwell’s, a small music venue in Hoboken, NJ, because he thought I yelled at him to shut up. Naturally, he demanded that whoever yelled should come up on stage and despite wanting to crawl into a hole and die, Matt and Tim shoved me forward. I forgot exactly what words were exchanged but I was able to explain myself while wanting to swallow my own head. Luckily things ended up fine and we hugged and made up. After the show I approached him to apologize and he was gracious, joking that due to my large stature joking that I was the last person in the audience he wanted to see step forward.
The second time was at Webster Hall where the aforementioned Tim was wearing literally the exact same outfit Stickles was.
Both times he was unbelievably gracious and kind, seemingly uncomfortable with just how fucking good he is at what he does. I have never met in my life someone so insecure with his own genius. And it’s clear that there are two sides to the man, a vast dichotomy between his past twitter feuds with critics and his quickness to want to beat me up and the kind demeanor of sincerity someone who does not realize how brilliant they truly are have.
Titus Andronicus does not pretend to be anything yet they are the bastions of contemporary indie rock; Stickles has proven to be entirely and completely unafraid to take risks which has cemented their place not only as the undisputed kings of the New Jersey music scene but in the upper echelon of rock in general.
If Stickles is the Punk Rock Springsteen, there is a definite connection that makes them more similar than you would think. Both deal with the subject of escaping and self-improvement, taking every day and feeling the smallest little bit of hope behind a veneer of personal surrender.
Springsteen yearns for release from the outside world, an attempt to rationalize and cope with the external forces that bring us down — let it be personal failures, a lack of money, lost love or what have you. The reality that Titus Andronicus lives in is that of self-actualization — that what we really need to escape is the weakness of our minds and the binds of self-doubt.
The reality isn’t that me and Mary need to escape the swamps of New Jersey on the back of a Harley. The reality is that we, as truly vulnerable human beings, need to escape the morass of the mortal world we have created for ourselves however we can.
More importantly, there is a subtle optimism hidden deep, way down inside — a realization that despite the struggles that we have we are still here and still fighting. There are many Sisyphusian references in Titus’ songs, pushing boulders up hills and so on. And so long as the narrator of TMLT doesn’t give up, despite his own yearning to enter an endless dream, neither can we, the listener.
The reaffirmation of shared experiences, like the Money Crew sitting in an empty bar listening to The Monitor all those years ago, brings us closer together. It’s truly comforting to know that we are not alone and while things may never truly get better at least we have punk rock to tide us over until we do.