Music has lost the power to shock. The last band to polarise society and change it for the better was probably the Sex Pistols at the end of the Seventies. The original wild child Robert Johnson started it all off in a bluesy kind of way back in the Thirties and then more up-to-date we had Led Zeppelin with their debauchery and TV throwing. Even Frankie Goes To Hollywood put the older generations and Radio One in a tizzy. These days, a Peter Doherty here, an Axl Rose there, even famous actors are getting in on the act with Charlie Sheen leading the charge. Nowadays, swearing on TV, debauched behaviour, shooting up – none of this shocks anyone anymore. Rock music has lost its edge. There’s too many old bands around, still peddling their old stuff (Rush, Iron Maiden, The Stones etc etc – and other sexagenarians) trying to recreate their salad days and luckily they are finding the baby boomers with lots of disposable income happy to spend serious money to listen to them recreate their greatest hits. Nothing wrong with it but we need to look to the younger generation to provide the confrontational spark to usher in a new dawn.
So we come to Titus Andronicus. They are not the great white hope or indeed a band that is going to rock the world absolutely, but they are in your face. They want you to sit up and listen. They don’t care much whether you like them or violently hate them. They just want a reaction. Just don’t be indifferent. They have a punkish nihilism running through their core, a Nick Cave-like focus on the negative. They want to stir an emotion one way or another. They want to polarise.
They are an unholy amalgam of The Pogues’ rumbustioness, The Editors searing guitars and Arcade Fire’s musical eclecticism combined with lyricism straight out of Dylan’s vituperative period (Positively 4th Street, Idiot Wind) and of course their fellow New Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen. They are an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by a mystery. With heavy Clash overtones, the whole thing could well have been an unholy row. Well, it is often an unholy row but somehow it seems to work on many levels. The musicianship is of an extremely high standard and the versatility is only matched by Arcade Fire. You want bag pipes, cellos, trumpets, guitars turned way over to 10? TA supply it. The vocals move from shouty to snarling to balladering and back again. The energy and passion is visceral. This is edgy, dangerous, irreverent. Unlike their fellow NJ musicians, Gaslight Anthem, they don’t wear their Springsteen homage on their sleeves but they do name check him in The Battle of Hampton Roads, and of course the ironic line “tramps like us, baby we were born to die” tips its hat at the Boss but counterpoints it with the reality of living in the working-class North-East.
The whole album could be termed a “concept album” in that there is a theme or multiple themes actually, rung through its entirety. On one level it is loosely based on American Civil War and features quotations from Lincoln, John Brown and Walt Whitman. On another it is the story of Patrick Stickles’, (the main protagonist in TA) relocation from New Jersey to Boston, his feeling of futility there and his sheepish return to New Jersey. There is a lot of self-deprecation, self-doubt and self-flagellation here and at times you wonder if it will bring a feeling of debilitation with it. But when considered as a whole one is left with an enormous feeling of empowerment, both for oneself and for the band.
Titus Andronicus are like a My Chemical Romance for punk rockers rather than Emos. But there is more than enough emotion running through The Monitor. If you fail to be charged and polarised one way or another then I suggest you check your pulse.
The album appears in plenty of Top 10 album of 2010 and it certainly finds a place in mine.