In a sentence:
Stripped back and emotionally direct, it’s difficult not to see the bar-room rock leanings of ‘An Obelisk’ as an over-correction in reaction to last year’s ‘A Productive Cough’.
There are many words one might conjure up to try to describe New York-based rockers Titus Andronicus – impassioned, subversive, and epic all come to my mind – but ordinarily “basic” wouldn’t be one of them. And yet the band, who only a few years ago put out a sprawling 93-minute rock opera, seem to have adopted something of a back-to-basics approach for their latest album. At 38 minutes An Obelisk is easily their most concise work to date, and it’s also their least adorned. Even their more stripped-down records like The Airing Of Grievances and Local Business are full of lengthy songs beefed up by strings and pianos and horns. Their last album, the mostly befuddling A Productive Cough, featured more than twenty musicians, and included a first-person cover of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ that dragged on for nearly nine minutes.
But with An Obelisk, Titus Andronicus strives for a
purer sound, recording live with only a four-piece and eschewing overdubs – perhaps
in an attempt to capture the energy of their renowned live shows. That
sonic modesty finds a companion in frontman Patrick Stickles’ straightforward
lyricism. Recently he
told Vice that 2010’s The
Monitor – a gutsy concept album loosely structured around the American
Civil War, and to my mind one of the greatest rock records of the 21st century
– was his second-to-last favourite of the band’s albums. “The lyrics are full
of references and allusions and shit,” he said. “That’s wack. That’s college
kid shit. I should’ve come up with my own ideas.” This seems to be the attitude
with which he approached the ten songs that make up An Obelisk.
The complex, reference-heavy narratives that have come to
define his work are mostly absent here, replaced by bare expressions of raw
emotion. “It seems the Earth is speeding quickly / Towards a grave
catastrophe,” he furiously shouts on ‘(I Blame) Society’. (The title
speaks for itself.) “Everywhere there’s someone suffering / Tumult around
the world,” goes the chorus on album-closer ‘Tumult Around The World’. Here
a lament of societal decay isn’t allegorically mapped onto the Battle of
Hampton Roads, it just is.
None of this is a bad thing. Stickles’ unabashed emotion has
always been central to Titus Andronicus’s appeal. His rousing
anti-establishment screeds and incisive self-reflections are well-complemented
by the stripped-back punk sound that producer Bob Mould (of Hüsker Dü) helps
the band to assemble. Rollicking opener ‘Just Like Ringing A Bell’
– its nod to Chuck Berry being one of the few “references and allusions and
shit” that have survived Stickles’ maturation – starts things off with a bang.
“They’re making a dirty fortune selling something that’s barely working,”
Stickles cries, the contempt in his voice plainly on display. “An inferior
version of rock and roll / Or whatever else ever has touched your soul / Call
it what you will, there’s a billion of them they sold.” He goes on to
remark that “The entire world is going to hell / But I in no way blame
myself.” Here the band sounds at the top of their game: spirited riffs and up-tempo
rhythms providing a perfect avenue for Stickles’ diatribe.
The next track, ‘Troubleman Unlimited’,
establishes something of a dual theme that extends across An Obelisk.
The societal lament of ‘Just Like Ringing A Bell’ is balanced by a more
introspective examination. Here Stickles reflects on his own stubbornness: “You
see, I used to be the problem child / I’m only my own problem now / Now I find
that I’m the same old wise guy they rightly threw out.” Later on ‘Beneath The Boot’, another
such inward-looking song, he admits that perhaps society isn’t solely to blame:
“I say I’m innocent but it isn’t true / I’ve done things I wasn’t meant to
To be sure, this is not merely a slapped-together collection
of tossed off punk songs; there is much thought put into the writing and the
sequencing, even if the resulting narrative isn’t of such a grand scale as that
of the band’s past work. And frankly there might something to be said for the
album’s smallness; not everything has to be an epic.
It would be easy to read An Obelisk as a corrective
to the poorly-received A Productive Cough; where that record was bloated
and loose, this is lean, free of any real excess. But knowing frontman Patrick
Stickles, the change likely has less to do with critics than it does his own
restlessness. In fact, each of their records seems to be something of a counter
to previous efforts: the shabby balladeering of A Productive Cough
followed the blown-out ecstasy of The Most Lamentable Tragedy,
and that came after the sullenness of Local Business, and so on.
In that sense, it was perhaps inevitable that they would
eventually fall back on that meat-and-potatoes rock’n’roll sound that has
always been their foundation. The band sounds tight and Mould’s engineering is
satisfactory, but the power chords and conventional song structures eventually
grow monotonous; by record’s end, it all begins to run together.
Even listeners frustrated by A Productive Cough may
find themselves wishing that a sliver of whatever it was that compelled Patrick
Stickles to include a nine-minute Bob Dylan cover had found its way onto this
record. Stickles is a compelling personality, and that will likely remain true
as long as he continues to make music, but ultimately Titus Andronicus is at
their best when he’s avidly pursuing bold ideas, and unfortunately An
Obelisk doesn’t have the gumption to match the band’s previous heights. (6/10)
Listen to An Obelisk by Titus Andronicus here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: An Obelisk, Brendan Nagle, Chris Wilson, Liam Betson, Merge, R J Gordon, Titus Andronicus
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