Classic rock and punk are supposed to be diametrically opposed, at least in theory. The latter arose in response to the former’s gaudy excess and artificiality in the ‘70s and ‘80s — punk stripped rock of the endless, meaningless solos and flamboyant rock star showmanship that characterized the era of Boston and Electric Light Orchestra and pushed it toward a formula as raw and direct as it was simple.
So, it’s rare for a band to draw upon both FM-ready rock and the angriest, most nihilistic strains of punk, but Titus Andronicus does just that. Its music exists in the uneasy middle ground between what was played in giant arenas circa 1980 and what was played in dingy clubs such as CBGB.
How many punk bands can boast not one, but two wicked harmonica solos on a single album? And how many traditional rock acts have songs with titles such as “My Eating Disorder” and “Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter?”
The band acknowledges this divide on opening track “Ecce Homo” with the line, “It’s us against them again/ Smashing the system into the dust/ Now we got our brown M&Ms/ Put the whole thing onto a T-shirt.” The first two lines are pure punk; the next, a reference to Van Halen’s infamous “no brown M&Ms” contract stipulation, equates the band with corporate sellouts.
Titus borrows equally from Bruce Springsteen — from whom it draws its working-class New Jersey atmosphere — and The Replacements, which pioneered the kind of inebriated, raucous punk Titus traffics in. But it’s not a band just for basement keggers or mosh pits — there’s a strong strain of existentialism to its music that suggests frontman Patrick Stickles and company have memorized their share of Albert Camus.
Local Business, the band’s latest album, opens with Stickles singing, “I think by now we’ve established/ Everything is inherently worthless.” It’s a sincere statement of despair, but it’s also gently self-deprecating — which, with such flat-out rockin’ songs, makes the band’s navel gazing tolerable and even enjoyable. It’s always leavened with humor — black humor, but humor nonetheless. There’s no problem too serious to be mocked, nor one too minor to be agonized over endlessly.
Titus’ previous album, The Monitor, was both hugely ambitious and hugely successful, melding a heavy dose of Civil War history (including more than one recitation of an Abraham Lincoln speech) to an epic rock opera about a loser’s failed relationship. Local Business aims lower but remains worthy. There are a few missteps, but, on the whole, it sounds like an album created by a band that’s sure of exactly what it wants to say and how it wants to say it.
The album falters whenever it relies too heavily on Stickles’ vocal abilities. His raspy, messy delivery is well-suited to full-throated howls of rage and despair, but no one would claim he has much mastery of tone and pitch. So, when he’s asked to carry a song on his own — such as when “In a Small Body” takes an abrupt left turn toward violin-soaked sentimentality, or his soft, trembling delivery in the grueling first six (six!) minutes of closing track “Tried to Quit Smoking” — his lack of technical proficiency as a singer becomes all too apparent.
Stickles’ voice is better suited to tracks such as “My Eating Disorder,” as he groans “Spit it out!” over and over against a chorus of angsty guitars that sound as if they fled in terror from Nirvana’s In Utero. It is perhaps the most brutal track the band has released, which is no small feat. This is the group with not one, but three songs titled “No Future,” after all.
Local Business has a few moments of uncharacteristic optimism to balance out all the misery. Titus has never sounded as carefree as it does on the wonderfully catchy earworm “(I Am The) Electric Man,” while closing track “Tried to Quit Smoking” becomes an instrumental, bluesy stomper in its final three minutes.
It’s not the first time the band has closed out an album with an uplifting instrumental. The Monitor climaxed with “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” a nihilistic wallow that unexpectedly transformed into a transcendent symphony, but it was a desperate kind of optimism, a light at the end of the tunnel you might already be too weak and defeated to reach.
The final moments of Local Business are more earnest and less conflicted than those of The Monitor. It sounds less like a sonic deus ex machina and more like the anthem of a survivor, someone who’s been to hell and back once or twice before and isn’t afraid to make another trip.
It might be marginally less emotionally satisfying than the wondrous conclusion to The Monitor — redemption, no matter how short-lived, is perhaps inherently more powerful than mere survival — but it’s a rewarding and surprisingly mature exit for an album that offers just enough hope to suggest life might be worth living after all.