Music Features

Titus Andronicus' Dysfunctional The Monitor Still Holds It Together at 10

One of the first things you hear on The Monitor is an Abraham Lincoln quote, declaring that “As a nation of freemen we must live forever, or die by suicide.” It’s a stark, self-serious announcement from Titus Andronicus, who are both stubborn controversy-producers and one of the most ambitious groups of the last 10 years. While making headway with their 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances, the real acclaim came with 2010s The Monitor, a juvenile, grandiose, and incredible concept album that’s been contentious since it came out. It’s not hard to understand why: a typical Monitor song is anywhere from two to fourteen minutes and features extensive music and TV references, and has lyrics doused in Civil War iconography. Yet what still cuts through the album’s overwhelming ornamentation is an earnestness and sadness that underscores nearly every song. Despite the heady Lincoln-era framework, The Monitor is just a tale of hitting rock bottom at the end of a relationship, realizing that you’re in a strange place without a purpose, and deciding to continue onward—even if you feel like you’re losing.

Still, the depth of the album isn’t immediately apparent, especially if you’re caught up with the explosive rallying call of A More Perfect Union. The Monitor is supremely uncool in a handful of ways. It’s a bulky, high school-y, patriotic punk album. Singer-lyricist and guitarist Patrick Stickles told a concert audience in 2015 that “Obviously, America is an evil force around the globe, and yet, the principles on which this country was founded, and the stuff that it says, in the Declaration of Independence is fundamentally good,” and those ideas have long reverberated through the group’s music. The core figures of The Monitor are those who are disenfranchised in America, whether that’s civil war soldiers or a punk who’s traveled to Massachusetts for a horrible relationship. Stickles uses the Civil War imagery in the lyrics to detail the struggles of that punk, ome who's down on himself (“You will always be a loser!”) and constantly battling his self-deprecating inner monologue. It’s almost fair to say that a track like Richard II is that inner monologue mocking our narrator, constantly reminding him that “[He’ll] be there somehow, asking where are all of your friends now” over punchy, marching drums. That endless self-deprecation shapes the album into something great, fueled by its anxieties and doubts.

The Monitor’s patriotism isn’t the only lame part here. It’s deeply earnest, overlong, and almost embarrassing at a few points. The average song is around seven minutes, always shifting and modulating, and losing normal song structure altogether. With this, the valleys and hills of the fight are measured in a song like Four Score and Seven, where Stickles yells that the enemy is winning, or when he’s “at the end of [his] rope and feels like swinging” on A Pot in Which to Piss. Both of these songs start at a whimper and gain power as Stickles whines on, but they take different routes. “A Pot…” starts with the sound of white noise and Stickles’ quiet vocals atop, but explodes when he sings its thesis statement: “There’s a white flag in my pocket, never to be unfurled,” cementing the album’s central idea that whatever belief or cause that you’re fighting for, even if you’re losing, is a worthy battle. 

If you take a random song off The Monitor, it’s likely that there’s a line that’ll make you roll your eyes. When Stickles yelps that “you ain’t ever been no virgin, kid, you’ve been fucked from the start,” his more childish sensibilities start to come through. But great performances can make bad lines passable, and Stickles’ charred voice always sounds equally determined and scared. When he screams about “the demise of our species” on Richard II, you can almost match the image of a vulnerable twenty-year-old with the bearded soldiers on the album cover. On one of his best moments on the album—the seven-minute duet To Old Friends and New with Jenn Wasser of Wye Oak—he accepts the sadness found at the end of the album’s relationship by accepting that it’s “all right the way you live,” and the melancholy that’s usually found in his voice is brought to the forefront. The two trade lines about how they could share a nice life together if they don’t kill each other first, a perfect summarization of the album's intersection of angst and woundedness.

And yet, Stickles despises The Monitor. He hates it a little less than Local Business, the 2012 album that helped dismantle the Titus Andronicus fanbase—but he’s still not much of a fan. In a recent Vice article where Stickles ranked the albums “least best to most best,” Dan Ozzi wrote, “You have The Monitor at number four and I’m trying to be objective here, Patrick, but are you fucking serious?” Stickles tries to acknowledge how important this album was for his career and how he’s grateful for it, but says that “It’s something I wrote when I was 24, and they are going to write it in my obituary. That’s annoying. It’s a bit of an albatross.” He still begrudgingly plays a handful of Monitor songs live, but he’s hypercritical towards the album. Stickles mocks the reference-heavy lyrics as “college kid shit” and the brief sing-along section on the iconic opening track as “Lumineers, fuckin’ grocery store, festival-kind of thing.” It’s hard not to be sympathetic towards Stickles in a sense, as he’s right. Of course, there’s something very immature about The Monitor, an album that thrives off of dense quotations from American History textbooks. Maybe it is perfect for teenagers and college kids—when you’re at an age where every molehill is a mountain, why not compare your angst, anxiety, and self-loathing to fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg? Even if it is college kid shit, it understands the self-important hyperbole that comes with being that age.

When Local Business came out, Stickles was trying to move forward, but the album was given a shrug from critics and fans alike. The band hit the road, trying to soften the blow of a solid, straightforward effort that directly contrasted with The Monitor, but the damage was already done. The creation of Local Business almost destroyed Stickles, as he was dealing with an extremely manic episode during the recording. After blood, sweat, and tears were shed making the album, Titus Andronicus promoted it as much as they could, but the album was stuck with the title of “the follow up to The Monitor.” Ever since then, Stickles has spent time alienating the indie tastemakers and listeners who made his career. The problem is that without those casual fans, Titus Andronicus has only obsessives: thirty-year-old ex-punks who know these songs way too well and care way too much. It’s clear that Stickles’ provocative moves probably have dampened his older achievements to many people. The Monitor recently made it to the bottom 10 of Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the Decade, and Stickles seemingly knows that he deserves more than that. His legacy should be worth more than a participation trophy from the publication who helped create his career.

My favorite thing about The Monitor is the aching sadness that carries the album. It’s telling how, during interviews at the time of its release, the band pushes away from discussion of the struggles at the core of the album. From the implications of substance abuse on Theme from ‘Cheers, to an inability to be happy with someone on To Old Friends and New, Stickles sounds like he seems broken at the core. There’s a constant rumbling of sound on any song here, with a consistent drone in the background that helps add to this endless melancholy that underlines many of the songs here. It’s easy not to notice those moments of despair under all the rambunctious rage that carries the chant of “the enemy is everywhere” on Titus Andronicus Forever, but by the time the reprise "...And Ever” starts up, there’s a different tone. This version includes a ragtime piano solo, but also throws in the key line “I'm worthless and weak, oh, I'm sick and I'm scared.”

That ad-libbed line carries over onto the aching closer The Battle of Hampton Roads. Starting with charging power chords, it winds and builds perfectly, finally letting a steady drum groove come in after two minutes into its 14-minute run length. But the best part of the song comes at a rest: Stickles is finally leaving Boston, heading west on Route 84 again. He feels lost, and that his stay in Boston has brought him to an all-time low. The relationship is gone, he’s alone, and he doesn’t know what to do. The driving guitars and building drums cut out at the climax. He sings in defeat, “I’d be nothing without you, my darling please don’t ever leave,” admitting to himself that his enemy—that self-destructive part of himself—is what drives him forward. Right after that climactic moment, the drums kick back in with a militant march, and a bagpipe solo takes ahold of the cathartic final minutes. Although Stickles waves his white flag at that huge moment, the dramatic swell of the music gives The Monitor an equally hopeful and grim ending. While he’s nothing without the enemy, the battle between the two will rage on forever and ever. Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on.