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Photo by Paul R. Giunta / Getty Images

Titus Andronicus Is Trying to Break Your Heart

Will Schube

The band's new album, ‘A Productive Cough,’ is odd, alienating, and sure to piss off fans still waiting for a sequel to 'The Monitor.' But maybe that’s the point.

Photo by Paul R. Giunta / Getty Images

With the release of Local Business—Titus Andronicus’ follow-up to their monumental breakthrough record, The Monitor—diehard fans of the band quickly learned that Patrick Stickles’ group has no interest in doing things twice. The record that came after Local Business was another sharp stick in the eye aimed directly at the band’s fanbase: A 29-song rock opera structured around manic depression titled A Most Lamentable Tragedy. Now, they’re back with a move so far to the left, it’s hard to imagine it was conceived by the same band.

A Productive Cough, their latest offering, throws into question everything we previously knew, or thought we knew, about the band, even if we should have been reading the tea leaves since Local Business. Titus Andronicus isn’t interested in catering to your idea of what the group should be—which, for most fans, is some iteration of the one that created The Monitor. Stickles has spent his entire career zagging when we expected him to zig and, for a while, the course was corrected for him. A Productive Cough throws the playbook out the window and causes a wreck behind it.

When Titus Andronicus arrived in 2008 with The Airing of Grievances, they came fully formed. It all started with Patrick Stickles’ voice—tinny and grating, yet endearing in its audaciousness—sounding like a 70s outlaw country star whose pipes got stuck in a food processor. Titus Andronicus’ intentions were forthright and clearcut from the first moments of opener “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ.” There were clever literary references for the Hunter S. crowd, shouts out to the Garden State for the folks weaned on Springsteen, and the heroic “FUCK YOU!!” yelp at the end of the song’s introduction to invite the punks and scenesters. Titus Andronicus was a band for the people—all of them. And then came The Monitor.

Despite the relative success and genuine goodness of The Airing of Grievances, it’s hard to imagine anyone could’ve predicted what a gut-punch 2010’s The Monitor would turn out to be. The opening noises of “A More Perfect Union,” sounding like an antsy orchestra tuning up for a performance and backing Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address,” was the perfect tease for the explosion of drums and guitar, the eventual emergence of Stickles’ snarl—now more confident and angry than before, a guttural summoning from a previously untapped well—and a level of songwriting the band had previously failed to display. It’s the kind of opener that forces you to remember where you were when you first heard it, a song that will give you chills just thinking about it. The Monitor is staggering because it’s the rare record that stakes out insanely ambitious goals, reaches them, and surpasses them.

2012’s Local Business represented Stickles’ first step back. The album’s stronger tracks (“My Eating Disorder” and “Tried to Quit Smoking”) follow the bandleader’s previously established blueprint of combining the personal with the worldly, except this time in reverse order, sifting through his own mental and physical struggles (namely, his eating disorder and relationship dysfunction) to find a relatable inway to the rest of the world. But the album sometimes sounds muzzled, its teeth sanded down to dull the split-second shift to a rollicking chorus or unexpected breakdown that made their prior two records so enthralling.

2015’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy did little to quell fears of a band in decline or help reveal what, exactly, the real Titus Andronicus is meant to be. It’s the most thorough hint that Titus Andronicus was, if not on the downslide, something wholly different than what we expected them to be—something that’s been almost hysterically confirmed on A Productive Cough. On its surface, The Most Lamentable Tragedy scans as another self-serious, meta-epic attempt at packing big ideas into a bigger package. It’s a much sturdier record than Local Business—its highs as high as its predecessor but staying altogether more consistent, somehow, over its 29 tracks. But within the context of the band’s new record, A Productive Cough, it’s a retroactive red alert, a sign that Titus Andronicus is more a representation of Patrick Stickles’ id than a proper rock and roll band. His vision knows no bounds. At times, the results are genius: The Monitor is a brilliant album. At others, it’s almost indescribable—neither good or bad, simply awe-inducing.

A Productive Cough isn’t a particularly… good album. It’s fun—a collection of songs best left as b-sides. Stickles’ constant interruptions, tons of rough edges, and a near nine-minute riff on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” allude to as much. But it’s also a fascinatingly unique and silly look at a band that’s never scanned as such. For the first time in their history, Titus Andronicus doesn’t have much to say. Say what you will about the band’s subsequent releases following The Monitor; but at least the band sounded like they were trying. On A Most Productive Cough, Stickles is the only one laughing at the joke. And this is likely what will piss off diehards, while attracting a few fans disenchanted with the intellectual rigor of their prior works or, simply, those into trolling.

It’s hard to imagine a Monitor devotee spinning A Productive Cough and being enthralled by the results. “Real Talk,” the album’s second track, begins with a voice that mimics a rapper’s hypeman, enthusing, “It’s about to get real innit, Pat?,” and, “I want a taste of that heat.” It’s almost surreal how far this record is from anything previously available in the band’s discography, which begs an important question: Separate from all sorts of loaded questions about authorial intention, is A Productive Cough a worthwhile listen?

Almost every track on the record features a staggeringly odd musical idea. (Oh yeah, Titus Andronicus also sort of changed their name to +@. It’s both significant and nothing to concern yourself over.) Opener “Number One (In New York)” is perhaps the most emotively convincing track on the album, a slow piano ballad with rising horns and Stickles’ voice sounding the most confident it has to date. The group-sung second half earns a participation trophy for sheer number of voices. The voices loop and coil around Stickles’ ever-angering yelp, building in passion and fury before a sleigh bell-led outro. Yes, a sleigh bell-led outro. “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” features a hand-over-heart earnest doo wop vocal section filled with sha na nas and ooh la las. It’s less silly than it is shocking. And if the average Titus Andronicus fan can get over this shock, parse through this left-turn as less of a joke than a heart-on-sleeve shift towards something more immediate, the rewards are actually kinda, sorta sweet. Sometimes.

“Crass Tattoo” is another ballad, this time led by Megg Farrell. It takes the concept of the tattoo and turns it into a rite of passage, the sort of growing-up act that Stickles has spent his career turning into a metaphor for something larger, something uniquely human.

Perhaps it’s the shitstorm of irony that’s invaded every crevice of our collective existence, but A Productive Cough shouldn’t come off as fake, or winking, or a joke. At times, it’s exciting. At other times, it’s a ridiculous ode to passionate music-making. For all the ridicule “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone” is bound to receive, it’s a fun fucking cover; a song by a bar band a few shots deep, both laughing at, and respecting the hell out of, Dylan’s self-seriousness and desire to be great. Perhaps it’s the sort of thing a band 20 years from now will be doing with a Titus Andronicus song. If it’s possible to separate Titus Andronicus and their previous work from A Most Productive Cough, there’s a good time to be had. The possibility of such an exercise, however, is unlikely.

Amidst the heady concepts, high-reaching themes, serious examinations of mental illness, and grand aspirations attached to Titus Andronicus projects, the music’s always been fun. A Productive Cough is the most base version of this idea, a reminder that this project came from a place of ecstatic joy. This new album is an overcorrection, a move too far right after leaning too far left, essentially a big fat question mark captioned with, “How did we get here?”. But messes can be fucking fun, too. That is, until you have to clean them up, and that’s what Stickles and his band leave in their wake. Namely, how do fans awaiting the next iteration of The Monitor—who have been, all this time, waiting for the next iteration of The Monitor—react to this? These fans should probably find a new favorite band. That Titus is gone. They’ve been gone for a long time, we were just too drunk off of one of the best rock records this century to realize.

There won’t be another Monitor. There probably never would have been one, anyways. A Productive Cough dives into straight-ahead pop and piano driven ballads, laughing, smirking, crying, and shouting. Patrick Stickles likes it that way, leaving his fans puzzled, awaiting another masterpiece that won’t come. A Productive Cough is gonna rub it in your face if you object, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Will Schube is on Twitter.