Last year, New Jersey rockers Titus Andronicus played BU Central. It was a great show, one that highlighted the band’s single greatest strength—their ability to combine punk’s anger and speed with indie rock’s melancholic sensitivity. This isn’t a revelatory, or even particularly rare thing—Titus wasn’t the first band to realize that punk and indie compliment each other, and they certainly won’t be the last, but they’re probably the best at it. Nothing proved this more than their 2010 masterpiece, The Monitor.
The Monitor is an incredible record. Singular and completely uncompromising in its vision, it’s a concept album that somehow managed to compare lead singer Patrick Stickles’ breakup with the Civil War, and it all made sense. It took the Jersey punk sound that the band is steeped in, pushed it to unprecedented heights of grandiosity, and did it all without sacrificing punk’s inherent impact. It’s known as one of the best rock albums of the last decade, and it certainly deserves all the praise it gets. On a personal level, it’s my favorite album of the last six or seven years (Joyce Manor notwithstanding).
All of this puts the band’s newest record, Local Business, in a rather uncomfortable position. The only good comparison for Local Business is The Monitor, and that’s a record that can’t be topped. It’s very frustrating, because this is a good record, maybe even a very good one. A bit slower and more methodical than Titus’s previous work, it’s chock-full of assured rock songs that further cement them as one of the best bands of their era. But it does all this in the shadow of The Monitor, and as a result it all sounds a little bit undercooked. This record has heights, surely, but none of them climb as high as The Monitor. Quite frankly, none of the best songs here are as good as the best songs on The Airing of Grievances, either.
Thematically, Local Business touches on the same ideas that Stickles has been dealing with for the band’s entire career. He sings about loneliness, separation, and how, sometimes, getting incredibly drunk with a bunch of friends is the best way to deal with all that. It’s a testament to his lyrical ability that none of these themes feel tired or played out. The album opens with quite possibly the most Titus Andronicus line in existence (“OK, by now I think we’ve established everything is inherently worthless/There’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose”), and there’s nothing I’d rather hear. The universality of Stickles’ lyrics has always been one of the band’s best assets—maybe you haven’t compared your breakup to the Civil War, but we’ve all felt lonely and lost, frustrated with the fact that the world doesn’t care and that life sucks. In an odd way, it’s comforting to revel in those feelings, and Stickles is phenomenal at getting them across.
In a lot of ways, Local Business makes sense. Like many punk bands before them, Titus has slowed down as they’ve aged (just look at The Menzingers’ progression from A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology to On the Impossible Past to find a similar shift in style). For the most part, this works out pretty well for Titus. Stickles’ quiet, warbled vocals, coupled with E Street Band style piano and guitar on “(I Am The) Electric Man” result in a sound that Titus have never really tried before, and they do a really good job with it. The album is stripped down and simple, much different from the complex, layered music that marked their first two records. According to Stickles, this was done so that the band’s live shows were closer to their recorded sound–a goal that’s pretty admirable, and one that I think they accomplish. It’s easy to imagine every one of these songs sounding pretty much exactly the same live, something that was essentially impossible with some of the tracks on The Monitor and The Airing of Grievances.
That being said, everything sounds a bit dull. The production in particular is frustrating. The guitars are often limp and lifeless. Stickles’ voice is right in the front of the mix, something that further pushes the rest of the instruments to the background. “My Eating Disorder,” an 8-minute track that comes right after (what else) “Food Fight!” showcases all of these problems. The guitar is muddy and indeterminate, and the song just seems too long. This is particularly striking: this band has always been incredible at making nine minute tracks feel like they’re over in four. The fact that “My Eating Disorder” is as dull as it is—it never seems to get going, and it kind of wanders around but never gets anywhere—is pretty disconcerting. I’m not trying to suggest that every Titus song has to be as good as “To Old Friends and New,” that would be both stupid and unrealistic. It also would totally take away from some of the album’s best moments. “In a Big City” is a wonderful little track, and “Upon Viewing Oregon’s ‘Landscape with the Flood of Detritus’” is an awesome, rollicking romp of a rock n’ roll song. But nothing on this album seems truly great. It’s all, at best, very good.
In the end, Local Business is a record that leaves me feeling both disappointed with the band and angry with myself. It’s not a bad record, not by any means, and I am in no way trying to suggest that the band has lost their step. They haven’t–very few bands working today could write and release a record as confident as this one. But it’s a good record, not a great one. I really can’t think of a single moment on this record that stands as tall as the band’s previous releases. And I hate myself for feeling like this. I’m trying to strike a good balance between what this band can do and what they did on this record. It’s stupidly unfair of me to expect the band to rewrite everything I thought indie and punk could be with each new release. And I don’t think I did that; I came into this record with relatively tempered expectations. Local Business is good, and it absolutely deserves your attention. But, after two and a half years, it leaves me wanting a bit more.
Titus Andronicus are playing at The Sinclair on 11/30 with California hardcore greats Ceremony. Grab tickets here.