Like all great punk rock, Titus Andronicus are the result of two key ingredients: fury and wit. Their debut, The Airing of Grievances, was a youthful and raucous critique of a society that values stability over honesty and maturity over fulfilment. On The Monitor, the enemy is not the guidelines of polite society, but the saps refusing to question them. Framed in terms of imprecise allusions to the American Civil War, this album explores every aspect of rage, from the first embers of anger to the final cries of rebellious triumph.
The album opens with the recitation of a rather beautiful portion of a speech by Abraham Lincoln, wherein he declares that his nation will “live forever…or die by suicide.” At this moment opener “A More Perfect Union” bursts to life. It’s a surprisingly crisp-sounding ode to leaving New Jersey behind – venomous but joyful, messy but hardly lo-fi. The final minutes see the first hint of this album’s major stylistic innovation: the incorporation of American folk and roots rock styles into the sloppy pop of Grievances. “Titus Andronicus Forever” may be the band’s least intellectual song, but it’s also among its best sing-a-longs: “The enemy is everywhere!” On “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future,” Titus Andronicus exhibit their sonic versatility. Misery-laden drone fades into fervent pop, then, suddenly, into a crooning piano ballad – and then, before you know it, another shout-along anthem: “You will always be a loser!” It’s an important move for a band so easily written as just a footnote on the lo-fi resurgence, to establish themselves as truly great songwriters. “Richard II…” is halfway between folk and punk – either way, it has the bite and urgency of a protest hymn. “A Pot In Which To Piss” revisits the multi-genre style of “No Future,” this time with mixed success: the first half is a bore, but the middle is thrilling, and the end is utterly transcendent.
The Monitor’s latter half pushes the mood further and further toward despair. “Four Score and Seven” is another rousing anthem, this time with a full brass band behind it, and another entirely too catchy slogan: “It’s still us against them!” “Theme From ‘Cheers’” and “To Old Friends And New” are the closest thing this album has to succinct pop songs: the former is a jaunty and ramshackle ode to the joy of youth – a lazier take on Grievances’ flagship song, “Titus Andronicus” – while the latter is a touching piano ballad on which lead singer Patrick Stickles shares vocal duties with Vivian Girls’ Cassie Ramone, to great effect. After a brief reprise of the refrain from “Titus Andronicus Forever” (this time with a jazz swing), the album concludes with surging, no-holds-barred “The Battle Of Hampton Roads.” By this point it has become hard to distinguish amongst all the album’s sprawling, angry epics, but taken on its own, “Hampton Roads” is rich sonically and lyrically, and it builds expertly from one man’s anger to a whole band’s triumphant resurgence.
The Monitor is a collection of great songs. But as an album, it’s one-dimensional: diverse as the songs may be, they all focus on the same message, and it’s one that, however reworded (“The enemy is everywhere” or “It’s still us against them”), is too vague to be truly meaningful. What this anthemic record is missing is a specific purpose: the Civil War allusions just aren’t enough to support the band’s fist-pumping fury. That said, the record is a thrilling experience and a rare display of song craft and spirit. And however vague the angry sentiments may be, there’s no doubt everyone can find some reason to sing along.