Titus Andronicus invents punk opera with The Most Lamentable Tragedy

Douglas Markowitz

Graphic by Rachelle Keller
Graphic by Rachelle Keller

Punks never really valued excess. That’s what they were all against: those garish corporate rock bands from the ’70s – Journey, Boston, Electric Light Orchestra – that Tame Impala is currently ripping off. Punk was all about the basics: a few chords, a fast tempo, some anti-establishment lyrics, and you’re good to go.

Perhaps that’s why, in 2015, at the nadir of punk rock’s cultural cachet, the work of Titus Andronicus shines so brightly. They are led by Patrick Stickles, the New Jersey-born songwriter, bibliophile and manic-depressive responsible for crafting their intricately referential albums, tackling topics from Seinfeld to Peter Bruegel the Elder. In the way of its namesake – Shakespeare’s worst, bloodiest play – they have blended low and high culture into dense chronicles of Stickles’ personal struggles with mental illness, and not only does their new album The Most Lamentable Tragedy do this on a grander scale than ever before, it also invents a previously inconceivable genre of theatrical music. It is the world’s first punk opera.

Opera is generally hard to parse without a libretto, or script, and this is doubly true for rock opera because there are generally only one or two vocalists per band playing multiple characters. In this case, not only has the album’s text been made available on Rap Genius, but Stickles has taken the liberty of annotating it, with the work still in progress. His notes are ironic at times, and can make the album’s themes a bit too clear, but they’re an important tool in understanding the story. TMLT (as the band likes to call it) follows Our Hero, not exactly an author avatar but one who suffers the same problems: a destitute life crippled by anxiety, depression and desires of living free from the poisonous interference of authority. One day, he comes across the Lookalike, a healthy doppelganger that convinces Our Hero he can take control of his disease and live how he pleases. From there, he journeys through past lives, great loves and a heritage spanning oceans and egos until another depressive episode renders him inert once again.

Some might see this as a grim ending – Our Hero lands in the same depressed state that he emerged in – but such is the endless cycle of mental illness, and the struggle against it is what gives TMLT its primary concept.  Depression is the great, unconquerable repetition in an album of cycles, from the seasons noted in its annotations to the end-at-the-beginning structure that takes us to the same holy note we began with, punctuated by an intake of breath. Yes, depression is the endless miserable specter that haunts not only Our Hero, but our author as well. As he tells it, the haunting relents only once in a while, lulling them into a brief sense of security and satisfaction for mere moments, only to throw them back into a manic episode that will last for months, even years. In spite of this, Our Hero realizes that we must live, even with our demons, and to make a more solid point, the author puts this in the annotations: “I won’t kill myself. #REALTALK”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lGwBaEXoJ4]

Not only has Stickles made a deeply personal, dramatic opus, but he’s also laid a cornucopia of explicit and implicit references everywhere within TMLT. There are allusions to Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Emma Lazarus, and even the band’s earlier albums. Several songs (“Fatal Flaw,” “I Lost My Mind ([email protected])”) are deeply indebted to Springsteen, and others are of unmistakably Celtic form and influence. They cover “Auld Lang Syne,” a Catholic hymn, and a classic from the Pogues. Above all, the most important influence on the album comes from Daniel Johnston, a cult music legend and, like Stickles, a manic-depressive. Not only does the band cover Johnston’s song “I Lost My Mind,” but album almost-closer “Stable Boy,” recorded on cassette and played by Stickes on chord organ, acts as a stylistic tribute to the outsider musician.

The most important success of The Most Lamentable Tragedy is Titus Andronicus isn’t interested in turning a profit on its tunes – the band just wants, needs, to get them out there as a means of survival. Their music is deeply self-interested, but it’s also a selfless act. Ultimately, the New Jersey punks have brilliantly drawn the anxieties of life into a grand, consummate statement of artistry that is, without a doubt, 100 percent punk, and perhaps the finest underdog story ever told. It kind of makes me wish the Ramones had a little more ambition.

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