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Titus Andronicus Explores Its Punk-Rock Side In 'An Obelisk'

Jul 29, 2019
Originally published on July 30, 2019 12:11 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of a new album by Titus Andronicus, a band that formed in New Jersey more than a decade ago. The album is called "An Obelisk." One of their previous albums was a collection based on the history of the Civil War. Last year's album, "A Productive Cough," was built around a series of ballads. Ken says the new album has a louder, more aggressive style.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST LIKE RINGING A BELL")

TITUS ANDRONICUS: (Singing) They're taking an old religion, fitting it with a different name. Now we're cutting our own incisions and inserting their hurting pain. There's another innocent victim shivering in the frigid cold. They're making a dirty fortune selling something that's barely working, an inferior version of rock and roll.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Patrick Stickles, lead singer and songwriter of Titus Andronicus, presents a narrator who is an angry, frustrated man throughout the band's new album "An Obelisk." Stickles sings and writes in the voice of an impatient, impetuous man who blames his own unhappiness on outward targets - government, religion and a pop culture devoted to satisfying immediate gratification. Here's our hero - or antihero - blaming a vaguely defined society.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(I BLAME) SOCIETY")

TITUS ANDRONICUS: I blame society. Society's to blame. I claim society is playing a hostile game. Inside my diary, I hide my private shame, and I blame society, society. Society's to blame. I'm not sick. It's the world that is. They're hiding their disease behind a giant sign. It's twice the size of life as we perceive it to be. This sign I describe, it reads, in silence you are free. That's how they try to tie and tightly bind us, reclined in our seats. Oh, my, they think that we are spineless. I think they are all cheats. It seems the Earth is speeding swiftly towards a grave catastrophe. That's my anxiety. It's the opposing team to my sobriety.

TUCKER: As you can hear, Titus Andronicus is exploring its punk-rock side these days. "An Obelisk" clocks in at a very tidy 38 minutes and has been produced by Bob Mould of Husker Du fame. Mould knows how to frame Stickles' voice within a dense thicket of guitar and drum noise on a song such as "My Body And Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BODY AND ME")

TITUS ANDRONICUS: (Singing) My body and me, we don't always get along. He tells me it's all right. I tell him he's all wrong. My body and me - it's only my body and me. But who is going to be the team leader between us, my body or me? We're gonna see. My body and me...

TUCKER: Patrick Stickles is coming up with novel ways to promote this new album. Most impressively, he's put together the pilot for a make-believe sitcom called "Stacks." You can watch it on YouTube and other places. In "Stacks," he plays a caricature of himself as a rock musician who is pained by the failure of his band to break into the big time. There are some very funny moments, including a super-awkward interview with a music website that only leaves Patrick more convinced that he may already be a has-been. The music, however, tells a different tale. The fake sitcom includes this fine song, also on the new album, called "Troubleman Unlimited."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLEMAN UNLIMITED")

TITUS ANDRONICUS: (Singing) You're trying to rob me, but I ain't got nothing, man. How are you going to rob me? There's nothing to take. You better back up off me, or I'll give you something, man. I'll give you a piece of the thing that I make, and that's trouble, man. Summertime judge came to bust my bubble. Now I got trouble. If the summer should fall, I would fall right along with it into the puddle with nothing for company but leaves as I bawl out for someone to function as some kind of buffer between me and my ugly side. It's too close to call out for anyone but the one love out the hundred who will love me for what I am under it all. You see, I used to be my father's son...

TUCKER: If the music on this album sounds simple and raw, well, it took a lot of skill to make it seem so. And the ideas behind the music aren't simple at all. The troubled man Stickles embodies is angry at the world when he ought to be looking within himself for the true source of his problems. And Stickles himself seems to wonder whether anyone can truly change one's basic nature. The result is a quandary that Titus Andronicus leaves unsettled, even as the band's music makes its decisive impact.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album "An Obelisk" from the band Titus Andronicus. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Laura Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan detective series set in Baltimore. Her new standalone novel, "Lady In The Lake," is set in Baltimore in the mid-'60s. The main character is a Jewish woman who's left her husband and is trying to become independent by becoming a reporter and investigating the story behind the death of a young African American woman whose body she helped discover. Lippman's father worked at The Baltimore Sun during the period the story is set. Laura Lippman worked there later. The novel is filled with insights about racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia at a time when the cultural landscape was shifting or was on the verge of shifting. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BIG YES AND A SMALL NO SONG, “PHOTO FINISH”)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BIG YES AND A SMALL NO SONG, “PHOTO FINISH”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.