Ten years ago, things were different. I could spend this paragraph listing the ways in which things have changed, but I think it’s more useful to talk about the things that haven’t. We’re still mad, still beaten down, still losing, and still lacking the capabilities to change any of this. On its face, this is bad. In fact, it gets even worse the more you think about it. So what do you do? New Jersey rock gods Titus Andronicus’ answer to this question still rings true a decade after the release of one of rock’s great masterpieces, The Monitor.
The Monitor, boiled down to its bruised and beaten skeleton, is about losing and losing and losing but never losing forever. Frontman Patrick Stickles can’t catch one break, not even a drop of victory in life’s arid and win-less desert. His solution to this problem is to be as much of a pest to life as it is to the rest of us. Through its historical rock operatics, The Monitor breaks the chains of being a respectful loser and rises beaten and bloody to spit in the eyes of its tormentors.
It would behoove me at this point to probably talk about the album as an album rather than a generational text, so here’s the bottom line: The Monitor rips. It rips, it bangs, it rules, I’d even say it whips ass. It is the perfect soundtrack to Stickles words as a sloppy, hubristic, and electric collection of rock songs that is all killer, no filler.
We kick off the album with “A More Perfect Union” and a reading from Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, which fittingly sounds like it’s being played off of a gramophone. This is the first of many allusions and direct references to the American Civil War, which truthfully begins with the album’s title; The Monitor itself was a Union army warship that was wrecked on her way to North Carolina. Lincoln, played by one of Stickles’ old teachers Okey Chenoweth, does the audience’s analytical work for them by stating the theme of the album outright: “As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.” Then we’re off.
I’ll not belabor the Springsteen comparisons as Stickles does a good enough job of that on his own, but the sound that ensues is reminiscent of the fellow Jersey rock god’s oeuvre. This is ironic, however, as Stickles spends most of this song detailing his escape from New Jersey, with references to regional affects like the “counting the cars on the Garden State parkway” and “waiting for the Fung Wah bus” blazing by like city skylines through a car window. The music is driving too, with dense percussion playing the frame to fuzzed out guitar riffs that pop in just long enough to steal the show. This exodus is based on Stickles actual departure from New Jersey to attend college in Massachusetts. As you can tell, he’s got high hopes, as he believes that “the well of human hatred is shallow and dry” in Boston, even calling out to the elements to challenge him (“Give me a brutal Sommerville summer/Give me a cruel New England winter”).
Arriving in Boston immediately proves to be the wrong decision because, as the next track “Titus Andronicus Forever” makes perfectly clear, “the enemy is everywhere.” In its comparatively meager runtime, this song wipes away any kind of hope for peaceful new life away from Jersey. In a world full of songs about getting away and escaping, very rarely do we get the picture of what happens when you get “there”. Well, you get The Monitor.
And the enemy is indeed everywhere, because who can be a bigger bastard to you than yourself? In the next track, “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future”, Stickles presents the ever waging internal war that plagues so many of us, tearing us apart from the inside much like the bloodiest war in American history that finds itself with many parallels on this album. He cuts to the chase: “Everything makes me nervous/And nothing feels good for no reason”. The music is low-key, rhythm guitar alone behind the vocals, and drops away when Stickles makes his ultimate proclamation, “All I want for Christmas is no feelings/No feelings now.” But then, “And never again!” rings out from the silence and signals the troops to ride.
By the time we reach the next verse, the snares are rolling in marching time and the guitars are twanging under Stickles caterwauling. Stickles laments the loss of his humanity to drugs that were to help him gain it back, now instead giving him a “robot that lives in my brain and he tells me what to do.” Of course, the little demon that lives in your brain is never completely gone, and Stickles hears him screaming in the back of his mind the mantra of “You will always be a loser”. And he hears it again, and again, and again, as represented by the climactic chanting of the phrase in the latter third of the song, which blurs the line between ritualistic and mocking. This continues as the song builds and builds until it all releases in the revelation: “You will always be a loser now, and that’s okay.”
This song, and this album, is about strife and struggle, but it’s not about stewing in it and sulking. It’s about spite, specifically the spite of taking life’s lemons and squeezing their juices into the eyes of your captors. Likewise, in the next song “Richard II”, there’s a line where Stickles proclaims, “I will not deny my humanity/I will be rolling in it like a pig in feces/’Cause there’s no other integrity/In awaiting the demise of our species.” On this album, Stickles is pinning down how dirty and messy it is just to be a living human being on this planet. It’s an often fruitless grind, but in a somewhat nihilistic manner , Stickles poses that we should revel in the suffering and at least put on a show for those at home who are probably feeling the exact same way.
Speaking of the grind, “A Pot in Which to Piss” is all about the absolute demeaning spectacle of being a band in our modern world. Uncharacteristically, Stickles starts out on the good foot, describing his “pretty good GPA” and the band’s “pretty good seven inch”. This fond remembering quickly turns cold, as Stickles recognizes that “Nothing means anything anymore/Everything is less than zero”. The drums ring out loud like the distant firing of cannon rounds, and the song, like the others before it, cocks the hammer back before letting it all loose on Stickles cue, which comes in the form of the lines, “I know it won’t do much good/Getting drunk and sad and singing/But I’m at the end of my rope/And I feel like swinging.” Through the songs ensuing movements, of which there are a few, Stickles describes coming up unloved and disrespected under modern musical eyes, referring to a journalist in their audience evaluating them to be “funny, but they drink too much” and “Don’t be surprised if they don’t amount to nothing at all.”
The song slows down, brings in the strings, and shines the spotlight down on Stickles, standing in the middle of the stage. He confesses: “I’ve been called out, cuckolded, castrated but I survived/I am covered in urine and excrement but I’m alive”. He lets any detractors and enemies know, one of which is himself, “there’s a white flag in pocket never to be unfurled.” Is he winning? No. Will he win? Probably not. But that’s okay. To himself, Stickles was a loser, is a loser, and will always be a loser, but he will never ever be a quitter. Even as they bring him down “for another swirl” in life’s great toilet, he’s staying in the game to death.
Of course, the reality of the situation is already made known as soon as “Four Score and Seven” begins, with the first line admitting, “This is a war we can’t win.” Bouts of optimism, like manic episodes, are often fleeting. Like a soldier writing home in a Ken Burns documentary, Stickles laments his situation accompanied by around-the-campfire guitar and a lonesome harmonica. It’s almost becomes hokey at this point, but as always, the pure conviction and faith of the band makes it soar. Once the moping has ended, we’re launched once again into a rollicking ode to feeling bad, as Stickles yells out nakedly, “Fuck I’m frustrated, freaking out something fierce/Would you help me? I’m hungry, I suffer, and I starve.”
His madman ramblings soon turn to real, palpable sorrow as he notes, “These humans treat humans like humans treat hogs/They get used up, coughed up and fried in a pan/But I wasn’t born to die like a dog/I was born to die just like a man.” He repeats the final line once more with feeling, and the instrumental blazes a trail to our current situation, true as it was in 2010 and the centuries before, “It’s still us against them”. The thing about the enemy, other than the fact that they are everywhere, is that they will always be the enemy. The war is never won, the gridlock is eternal, and you’re always looking down the barrel of the same gun. But even with these words, and with Stickles’ abundantly confident delivery, the music never shows their whole hand. The music itself is always celebrating and driving forward, even reaching cathartic heights as Stickles finally admits “They’re winning.”
What follows these two behemoth songs are appropriately two of the more straightforward cuts on the record, “Theme from Cheers” and “To Old Friends and New”. The former is a southern-rock tinged anthem that, much like its namesake, revolves around drinking and getting drunk. As noted earlier, Stickles is receiving over the counter help for his existential ailments, but it would seem what keeps him really going is his self-medication. He commands, “Give me a Guinness, give me a Keystone light/Give me a kegger on a Friday night/Give me anything but another year in exile”, as the music swells to meet him like a drunken mosh pit anticipating the drop. The song ends on a somber and reflective notes as Stickles imagines himself years down the line, wondering “What the fuck was it for anyway?” As if to answer, the music breaks lose in a frantic reverie that jams an album’s worth of fire and intensity into a 30 second outro.
The song that follows is “To Old Friends and New”, which is the only real ballad on the album and appropriately the only one about any kind of romantic relationship. That’s not to say the relationship is good, as Stickles and guest singer Jenn Wasner of Wye oak paint a picture of love in disrepair. In her verse, Wasner croons “Are you just too fucked up to understand me or is it the other way around?/Maybe it’s both, and I just don’t know which is worse”. This couple, whether it is actually Stickles’ relationship or not, seem to have more contempt than affection for each other, so why do they stay? This question is answered by both Stickles and Wasner in tandem in the emotional climax of the song, as they sing “And reasons for living are seldom and few/And if you see one, you better stick to it like glue/Yes, it’s true.” These are two people who stuck together because they were all they had. Like the rest of the album, Stickles clings to the things in his life for dear life, but this relationship seems to be the only thing he’s willing to let go of, as he ends the song with “But if you know nobody is ever going/To suffer for you like I did/Well it’s alright the way that you live/It’s alright the way that you live.”
Before we reach the finish line on this journey to Boston and back, we are greeted with a short reprise of “Titus Andronicus Forever”’s credo, as we are reminded once again that “the enemy is everywhere”. This serves as a preparatory salve for the album’s longest and most intense song, “The Battle of Hampton Roads.” The song’s 14-minute run time allows it to tower over a group of already longer-than-average songs, and every single millisecond is put to good use.
We begin at the end, as “two great ships will pull back to their ports/Depleted of everything that shoots flames and reports”, giving the listener a post-battle scene of two dejected combatants fleeing the scene. That’s because, despite its grandeur and ambition, this is a song about a retreat. Stickles saw promise in leaving New Jersey, as we saw in “A More Perfect Union,” and now the universe has punished him for even considering such a thing could be possible. Stickles reacts to this in anger, taking shots at the frat bro culture at his Boston college and the results of their wanton debauchery (“Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?/Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?”). He fumes at the ineptitude and cowardice of the human race, furiously questioning, “Is there a soul on this Earth that isn’t too frightened to move?”
All the while the music continues to build and build and build, adding new layers upon each new verse and only moving forward, never backward, unlike our tragic hero. The track reaches its first peak after Stickles admits, “I’m going back to New Jersey, I do believe they’ve had enough of me.” The following instrumental break brings back the screaming riffs that have populated the album, pushing the limits of how hard a guitar can shred before your guitar neck snaps in half. After all this reverie, the song slows and the resounding percussion falls away. Once again, it’s just you and Patrick. It’s now that he subverts a time honored cliche, that hard times and pain leads to growth. As he heads back to his homeland, “tail between my legs”, Stickles freely admits he has learned nothing, and is still practically the same person as when he left. “Now I’m heading west on 84 again/And I’m as much of an asshole as I’ve ever been,” he sings, “And there’s still nothing about myself I respect/Still haven’t done anything I did not later regret”.
So what does Stickles do when faced with this existential nightmare? He does what he’s done for the other 60 minutes of the album: he doubles down. With hardened resolve, he chants “So now when I drink I’m going to drink to excess/And when I smoke, I will smoke gaping holes in my chest”. He grows more and more frantic as he pledges to continue the Titus Andronicus experiment, claiming “And when I get sick, I will stay sick for the rest/Of my days peddling hate at the back of a Chevy express/Each one a fart in the face of your idea of success.” The instrumental takes note of this, growing in intensity as each line concludes with more and more vitriol. Then, at its summit, the ground falls away. When the snares return to keep the pace, Stickles is mournful, finally addressing the enemy dead on. He realizes that this hate, this pain, this turmoil that his adversary gives him, whether that be himself or the world around him, it’s the reason that he lives. “And I’d be nothing without you, my darling, please don’t ever leave,” he pleads. For the final time, Stickles notes that the battle and the struggling is not a defect of life, it is the experience of living. Without it, there is nothing. So, the conclusion is that there is nothing left to love it, because it’s going to be there regardless. Then, the bagpipes come in.
For the remainder of the song, the band takes a victory lap, celebrating the conclusion of their masterpiece. I mean, there are literal firework sounds at the end of this record. The fact that everything in this record is still so relevant usually wouldn’t be cause for champagne, but the creation of this album, of a generational masterwork, certainly is. Stickles, when confronted with inner and outer voids of our world, turned to one of the most time-honored remedies for a sick soul: creating art. But here, there is no ghostly acoustic guitars, no whispered confessions or meager attempts at catharsis. Titus Andronicus, like William Tecumseh Sherman, went scorched Earth, seeking to set rock and roll ablaze while taking themselves and the world out with them. All this to still be losers at the end of the day. And that’s okay.