Music Reviews
The Most Lamentable Tragedy

Titus Andronicus The Most Lamentable Tragedy

(Merge) Rating - 8/10

For a songwriter so consistently fixated on the themes of alienation and depression, Patrick Stickles has never had trouble expressing himself. As the leader of Titus Andronicus, he’s made his name with lyrically and musically maximalist punk epics, most notably the band’s 2010 masterwork The Monitor. Like their contemporaries Fucked Up and Japandroids, Titus Andronicus channel the disaffected outsider ethos and musical intensity of punk traditionally confined to short bursts of energy into something grandiose and even celebratory. With their fourth album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the band stretches that style to its limits, a 93-minute, 29-song rock opera chronicling its narrator’s struggle with mental illness.

The obvious touchstone here is Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü’s 1984 hardcore opus that shares many of the same themes of disillusionment and isolation. Like their previous work, TMLT succeeds by defying conventional punk wisdom. The grim subject material here is injected with a triumphalism that proves to be not only more infectious, but ultimately more affecting than a retread of Zen Arcade’s bleak rage ever could be. The album frequently finds Stickles spewing out condemnations of society and expressions of his own inability to coexist with it, all set to power chords and arrangements drenched in piano and strings that sound downright empowering. There’s a certain pride with which the protagonist of the story proclaims his insanity, as if exposing his inner self to the world through song is the most powerful act of catharsis available to him. It’s perhaps the biggest reason why the album is easier to parse than it sounds on paper (aside from the fact that the tracklist is padded by numerous short interludes): this is an exhilaratingly fun album with a joyous, hooky sound that often takes on a sort of muscular beauty.

Like Zen Arcade, the story that that music ostensibly provides a soundtrack to doesn’t necessarily follow an explicit narrative. There are various emotional peaks and valleys to the album, from the exuberant Mr. E. Mann to the despair and rage that begins after a rendition of Auld Lang Syne and culminates with Into the Void, where Stickles’ isolation has reached the point where he declares he was “born to kill the President.” Stickles frequently takes aim at religion, education, and other institutions built on the principles of control and conformity, implying that his narrator’s insanity is really just the inability to fit the mold society has created for him. There’s also a recurring character who is physically identical to the narrator but his spiritual opposite, and a girl named Siobhán for whom he harbors an unrequited love, and something about a “mystery beast,” though none of it is really important to the emotional or thematic cores of the album. The lack of a unified story here is such that there are two covers on the record, although the rendition of Daniel Johnston’s I Lost My Mind does fit surprisingly well with the material.

Rather than contributing to the story, the covers are a continuation of Titus Andronicus’ willingness to acknowledge their inspirations in their music. Most important in this regard is Johnston, the legendary outsider musician to whom the album owes a debt. Johnston’s own struggles with mental illness have been well documented, even having a rock opera based on his life written for the stage. The last real song on the album, Stable Boy, is played on the chord organ, likely as a tribute to Johnston’s work with the instrument. The references on the album also connect to the band’s own past, even beyond the extension of the No Future saga: the Shakespearian sweep of the title sums up Stickles’s literary ambitions, as does the band’s name itself. Lonely Boy even contains the second Seinfeld reference of their career (after the title of their debut, The Airing of Grievances) with the instant-classic lyric “Everywhere you turn there are hundreds of humans / All opening the door, saying, “Hello, Newman.” It’s not just for the sake of the reference, though; it connects to the mordant humor on display throughout the album.

Just as the album’s lyrical touchstones range from Elizabethan tragedy to ‘90s sitcoms, TMLT stands out as Titus Andronicus’ most musically varied album. The shorter instrumental tracks, while mostly dispensable, mark the first appearance of electronics in the band’s work, serving to create a frightening atmosphere around the album’s edges. Elsewhere, the songs range from the glammy stomp of Lonely Boy to the 18th-century theatrics of More Perfect Union, and the frenzied Dimed Out to the quiet sentimentality of closing tracks No Future Part V and Stable Boy. These variations are some of the album’s strongest musical touches - each retains traces of the band’s trademark melodic hardcore anthems while adding their own distinct flavor, and each one feels completely committed to. It’s a saving grace on an album that would have otherwise become too repetitive and exhausting over its extensive runtime.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy frequently flirts with going overboard in this manner, from the sheer quantity of music here to Stickles’s cavalier attitude towards approaching pretension and melodrama. That’s why the album doesn’t quite equal The Monitor - that album truly felt like an epic aside from its concept, where this often feels stretched to the point of breaking. These songs often lack the space and build that they had on that record, with Stickles’s voice too frequently turning into a garbled torrent of words lacking the texture provided by slower moments or instrumental passages. TMLT also lacks much of that album’s emotional resonance by nature - The Monitor makes the listener feel unified with the band in their alienation (the near-celebratory chant of "You’ll always be a loser"). The Most Lamentable Tragedy presents an abstracted story as its emotional core, and it’s significantly harder to respond to that more distant lyrical perspective. Taken on its own, however, the album is one of the more compassionate, prideful and ultimately moving depictions of mental illness on record in recent years. No matter how deep into a psychological hell Stickles’s character gets, he’s never judged or stigmatized, and there’s always a sense of hope waiting on the other side, like the “radiant lady” in More Perfect Union and the animals blissfully ignorant of their own mortality in Stable Boy. But maybe the most hopeful thing about being crazy is right in the music itself - it’s the only way you could make an album like this.