Rock opera. Those two words have a certain promise in them. Structure takes some precedence over instrumentation. Lack of quality represents something other than plain laziness. And symbols, whenever they are not beaten like a dead horse by English academics, function as key to unravelling the musical tarmac. From the recognizable American Idiot by Green Day and Tommy by The Who to the Toronto locals Fucked Up and their David Comes to Life release, the rock opera requires a grasp of control. With The Most Lamentable Tragedy, Titus Andronicus manages to control a behemoth of ideas, even with some vague notions of what some of those ideas are.
Titus Andronicus, a Punk Rock band based out of New Jersey, had already soaked their feet in musical complexities, as indicated by their previous release, The Monitor, an album that shoves the Civil War backdrop onto a compelling love story, using volume, evocative lyrics, and an urgency that maddeningly leaves the listener wanting more. Though Local Business follows The Monitor, it is The Most Lamentable Tragedy that feels like a blood relative to their Monitor. What differentiates this album to its predecessors is its use of acts and several crises.
Five acts. Within these lie mental illness, heritage, a multiple personality disorder, love, drugs, and much more, leading me to be sceptical as to how vocalist and guitarist, Patrick Stickles, would commit to a rock opera. Encompassing several seasons, the album’s overall premise, in its simplest form, is that depression sucks, but mania also sucks, especially when you have a split personality–and also, somewhere along the line, you will have some strange dream sequences revolving around an ancestor that goes through similar things you go through. In the end, the album becomes a matter of finding the hero facing off against himself in a Star Wars-esque meeting of the minds. The question is, does it work?
Underlying all of these aspects of life are the instrumentation and punk fury that the band has been known for delivering. The thrashing chords and the purposeful silences act as a vehicle to, as smoothly as possible, take the listener on this voyage that, sometimes, can overwhelm the important lyrics. Opening up with feedback in “The Angry Hour,” the assemblage of all six band members set themselves up on the stage for the non-complex “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant,” a track that is purposefully simple. With depression of our hero encompassing the first act, there is a lack of extravagance; it is just punk and throaty shouts. These simple antics go on until “The Magic Morning” where hypo-mania kicks up the more up-and-at-’em melodies. And, yes, there are two tracks labelled “I Lost My Mind.”
Tracks like “Dimed Out,” the first single off the album, “Fatal Flaw,” and “Come On, Siobhán” should be singled out on their own as tracks that are filled with life and, without the whole rock opera tent around it, can be stand-alone songs. The stranger tracks, such as “More Perfect Union,” which has a folk-like and Irish style that dresses up our newly introduced ancestor story line, and “(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID,” which is a long look of mental dreariness, have interesting structures. The former track has a slow change of pace with a long instrumental breakdown, and the latter has the hero take you to a dark place, slowly allowing you an intimacy around their desires and painful search for sense, especially regarding their personality, their double, a lookalike.
This album is about I, about me, about the self. It is an over ninety-minute piece that is rich in how it forms a character portrait–a case study on one individual. The album takes the internal and makes it gargantuan, still allowing the external to play a role in the hero’s fragmented mind. Stickles wants to make the album overt, positing his mental map through interviews and videos. Of course, like the fractured mind, some things will remain vague, such as the eventful fifth act, but the band can be forgiven that. What the album ends on is not a Wizard of Oz style of grainy quality, but the return to sadness and the idea of mortality. Our hero faces his split personality; his lookalike. A synth blankets everything and the album takes one last breath before everything ends.
This is an inspiring work of ambition, one that should influence later generations of musicians, whether they be of a punk background or not.
Dustin Ragucos is a writer of things fictional, poetic, and musical. His main loves include Death Grips and Indie music. Dustin’s blog is host to a weekly blurb about albums old and new.