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Titus Andronicus vs. Ideological Oppression

Nov. 19, 2012
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Much has been made of the first couplet on “Ecce Homo,” the lead track on New York-based Titus Andronicus’ latest album, Local Business. “Okay, I think, by now,” rambles vocalist/guitarist Patrick Stickles, “we’ve established that everything is inherently worthless / And there is nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” Even coming from a lyricist with a penchant for self-deprecation, it’s a tough few lines to swallow. Has Stickles abandoned the communal “us versus them” search for meaning that marked the band’s earlier work for an overt, comfortable cynicism—or even a creeping sense of nihilism?

A cursory listening of Local Business would seem to suggest that Stickles is struggling with questions of identity and self-worth. A darling of the indie-rock scene, Stickles now worries about being nothing more than “a drop in a deluge of hipsters” (on standout track “In a Big City”). He goes on to chronicle his struggles with selective eating disorder on “My Eating Disorder” and chooses to close the album with “Tried to Quit Smoking,” in which he admits, “It is not that I wanted to hurt you / I just didn’t care if I did.” At times, the mood on Local Business is overwhelming, as Stickles’ blunt honesty moves closer and closer toward the realm of self-loathing. For all its sonic richness—the band has really never sounded better—such a feeling makes much of Local Business an uncomfortable listen.

And perhaps that’s the point. While Stickles dismisses the idea that his lyrics reveal any type of deep self-hatred—“I’m just a dirty asshole,” he noted with a mischievous laugh in a recent interview—he doesn’t hide from the fact that Local Business is, at times, an ugly record. It’s also best described as a punk record, a label that the band has recently embraced, going as far as to announce their current tour by declaring that “PUNK IS BACK.”

“We are punk,” Stickles says, “because we do what we want, free from any sort of ideological oppression.”

The best punk has always been confrontational, and Local Business confronts a host of demons, societal and personal. And while Stickles may ultimately conclude, like other punks before him, that there is indeed “no future,” he doesn’t necessarily take existence as pointless. “If everything is without meaning,” he concludes, “then you can create whatever you want.”

This notion of finding something of value within the ruins informs all of Local Business. It also gets at Stickles’ gift as a songwriter, as there are few performers out there with his ability to capture the ambiguous nature of being part of any sort of underground culture. Listening to the last verse of “Ecce Homo,” one is reminded that alternative music should be more than just an easy-to-market genre: It must also be a place where misfits work through this sense of confusion. Within this verse, Stickles’ subject stands in front of a vacant storefront, forgetting “if he felt oppressed or depressed or which one came first in this crazy mess.” There are no easy answers offered to this existential dilemma, but, as Stickles concludes, “It’s a lot more than just being bored / I know it’s nothing more than being bored.” That feeling has launched thousands of bands. One gets the sense that Titus Andronicus will inspire even more.

Titus Andronicus plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Nov. 23, with openers Ceremony and Jaill. Doors open at 7 p.m.


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