Have you ever heard the line “Go big or go home?” I hate that catch phrase. I also hate New Jersey, even though I’ve never been there and don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from the state. My discontent stems from a barrage of phone encounters with New Jerseyians who seem genetically disposed to being miserable fucks trying to make everyone else as miserable as they are.
Titus Andronicus hales from New Jersey, they seem miserable, and they’re aiming for the upper deck with their sophomore effort, The Monitor, a loosely knit concept album featuring a barrage of indie guest stars fueled by pony kegs and a desire to be a part of something special.
It’s the kind of album that can get reviewers in trouble; The Monitor is such a blatant attempt at musical martyrdom that you want to immediately discount it. However, it’s delivered with such drunken stumbles and underdog charm that it’s easy to get caught up in its anthemic reverie and blindly champion it.
The reality is probably somewhere in the middle: The Monitor aligns itself with such modern-day landmarks as Neutral Milk Hotel‘s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Bright Eyes‘ Lifted, and Fucked Up‘s The Chemistry Of Modern Life. If your head is spinning trying to imagine an algorithm of all of those albums, then you’d be better served by skipping this review altogether and getting your own copy of what I think is 2010’s first record of the year entry.
That’s right, I’ve become a giddy fanboy of all of the shit that Titus Andronicus is cramming into The Monitor in much the same way that I’m a fan of those aforementioned albums. It’s a whirlwind of influences, drunk journal meanderings, and spirited after-hours rock and roll when it’s too late to worry about sleep, sex, or brain cells.
I’m also totally smitten by how the band just blatantly apes artists well out of their reach: The Clash, The Pogues, and The Boss. They’re too young or too drunk to care that they’re nowhere near any of those artists’ highpoints, but that’s part of the appeal here. The Monitor barrels through sixty minutes of passionate rock and roll that to blow it off is to lie to yourself that it’s not special. The Monitor may ultimately become the best thing this band ever releases, but even if it is, it will still be a joy to listen to long after they should fall from grace with God.
It’s not just the Nor’easter bar band arrangements that entice you, there’s a lot of help from vocalist Patrick Stickles’ endless barrage of words—often separated by only a gasp of air or the obligatory second-wind slow number. There’s the suggestion that Stickles’ has created some concept of a character leaving Jersey for Boston only to question the notion of how a regional transition can even change someone’s real identity. How this all translates into a civil war thesis depends on the number of Keystone Lights you’ve thrown back before listening to it.
In reality, the only character is Stickles himself trying to bullshit his way through a concept. He’s just another miserable fuck from Jersey, who spells it out on one line in “A Pot To Piss In” with The Monitor‘s most telling couplet: “You’ve never been no virgin kid / You were fucked from the start.”
The difference is that he’s at least trying to get in my good graces with all of those musical recollections and emotive quantifiers that The Monitor keeps dishing out. At least until the fourteen-minute long closer “The Battle Of Hampton Road,” the album’s most ambitious and jaw-dropping moment. By then, Stickles is a screaming ball of vitriol who’s no longer a woeful drunk, but the scary dude who’s about ready to make a very bad decision.
As good as The Monitor is, it does nothing to really change my opinion of the Garden State, or my feelings towards the phrase “go big or go home.” What it does instead is help me realize that both of those elements, New Jersey itself and the notion of trying to give it all instead of staying close to your own natural abilities, have contributed to Titus Andronicus’ delivering an album that will most assuredly change their lives for the better. It is a game-changing moment, one that is deserving of its recent praise and one that may indeed be name-checked for years ahead by anyone who likes their depression mixed with a stiff drink and bloodshot rock and roll therapy.