Titus Andronicus, punk-rock mainstays hailing from Glen Rock, New Jersey, will play live in Philadelphia this Friday, November 22nd. The band nears the end of a lengthy 2019 tour in support of their sixth album, An Obelisk, released this past June.
Titus Andronicus have certainly been busy this decade, managing to release a full five albums. Yet none have had a more lasting impact than their first release of the decade, 2010’s The Monitor. Regarded in many DIY circles as modern punk classic, it’s well worth looking back at the album as it nears the ten year anniversary of its release.
I first came across The Monitor as a result of a friend’s impassioned recommendation. This musical recommendation stands out among many I’ve received over the years because of the clear energy behind my friend’s urging that I give this project a try. “Listen, this record isn’t easy to listen to” I recall her telling me, “but you absolutely HAVE to hear it.”
She couldn’t have been more right on both accounts. The initial listening inaccessibility that The Monitor presents their audience with is easy to pinpoint. The album opens with a reproduction of a portion of President Lincoln’s Lyceum Address and the song’s overall runtime exceeds seven minutes. Back to back songs that near nine minutes in length are the midpoint of the album. And the record’s final track, “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, is a full fourteen minutes. Combine this length with a raucous unrelenting style of punk rock and the casual music fan could be forgiven for not falling in love on first listen. But more and more secrets of The Monitor are unlocked with each successive foray into the world that Titus Andronicus have carefully built across 65 minutes. The Monitor somehow includes instrumental guitar wizardry, Irish jigs, and sing-along anthems. The brilliance and ambition is hard to deny.
The album’s ambition goes so much further than the length noted above. The Monitor asks its audience, nay demands its listeners, to grapple with multiple heavy themes with complete disregard for temporality. This is because the American Civil War itself is wrapped into the fabric of this album. Is it a concept album? Well…yes and no. While several historical readings from the Civil War era are littered throughout the album and there are explicit motifs of struggle against outside oppression, the album does not go so far as to create a cohesive narrative frame for the aforementioned concept. Instead, the Civil War remains as a backdrop for the band to use at their convenience.
Placed right alongside dated references to America in the 1800s are urgent reminders of the present. The present for Patrick Stickles, frontman and driving force for Titus Andronicus, is New Jersey. “No I never wanted to change the world but I’m looking for a new New Jersey” Stickles croons at one point during the opening “A More Perfect Union”. This line, containing both a reference to Billy Bragg and a larger mission statement, are as incessant across the album as the nonstop guitar lines. Bruce Springsteen looms large as an influence as well, most notably with the biting lyrics “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!”.
A crucial piece of the album is also its unabashed vulnerability. “Is there a soul on this earth who isn’t too frightened to move?” poses singer Patrick Stickles on the albums closer. It’s just one of many questions, sometimes asked directly and other times expressed implicitly, across the album. These questions are just as likely to make the listener think as they are to make the listener feel. The Monitor does a terrific job of forcing the audience into participatory shoes alongside the band.
It can be tempting to think that an album centered around so much angst-fueled rage won’t hold up years later. That is not the case with The Monitor. Across this project, the band makes clear that the earnest struggle to be human, to survive and express, trumps even the knowledge of who the enemy is (and the enemy is everywhere!). Titus Andronicus manage to fuse a contemporary punk spirit and resistance to growing up with universal existential questions of freedom and refusing to back down in the face of extreme adversity. Even ten years later, The Monitor is a triumph.