It's uncommon these days for an album (A) by a rock band (B) that isn't very famous (C) to occupy the designated Music You Should Pretend to Care About slot in non-music-only media. But the new album by Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, is an uncommonly ambitious rock-band album—a double CD (triple vinyl!), 93-minute-long rock opera about bipolar disorder—so it stands to reason that the Atlantic, the New York Times, NPR, and even Rolling Stone would take note, alongside more parochial outlets like Pitchfork (8.1), Spin (8), and Stereogum. Only in the desolate mercantile landscape of contemporary pop could so elaborate and indulgent a work be considered a shrewd commercial gambit.
Still, it would be cynical to suggest that the album's ambition is market-driven (or solely market-driven). TMLT digs deep into the psyche of its author, Titus Andronicus prime mover Patrick Stickles, and makes a major aesthetic virtue of its ungainliness. It's a commanding, intelligent, complex, full-throated record that exemplifies both classic rock songwriting values and the now-just-as-classic will to overshare. The tragedy being lamented is the inner life of someone afflicted with a truly nightmarish condition almost no one understands.
Offstage, Stickles comes on like the last of the old-time conscientious objectors, a guardian of rock integrity in an age of naked meretriciousness—and based on the evidence of this album, his hyper-intentionally irascible public persona is only the tip of the iceberg. These are dark, desperate songs. But they're also crafted with real skill and an innate sense of what rock is for.
It would be easy to proclaim The Most Lamentable Tragedy a masterwork simply because it exists in a world that is intrinsically hostile to things like it. But in a way, it's better than a masterwork, because it's so clearly a (frustrating) mess, like a beehive that just fell from a tree branch and cracked open on the hard earth. From an aerial view, the album is hard to see the edges of, but if you zoom in, it's just a big collection of songs—some fantastic, some monotonous, some harrowing, some embarrassing.
"Dimed Out" is sheer perfection. It's fast, loud, precisely articulate and inarticulate, smart, dumb, low, slangy, and as catchy as possible. The song's self-awareness allows its treatment of rock 'n' roll hedonism to be both clever and fittingly heroic—"Don't wanna buy an ounce/for me the right amount/is the entire pound" is a triplet any rock songwriter would be thrilled to stumble over. Likewise with "Fatal Flaw," "Fired Up," "Come On, Siobhán," and the brilliant cover of "I Lost My Mind" (which recasts Daniel Johnston's broken toy box original as a beer hall free-for-all)—each one a gem. The world that would allow songs like this on the radio, as opposed to a Spotify playlist, would be a more interesting place.
But it's not a more interesting place. It's this place. And this record—which demands, rewards, and frustrates intense scrutiny in equal measure—will struggle, as all ambitious records do, to reach an audience that isn't already waiting for it.
It's hardly news that 25-to-30-year-old white lads with guitars and disruptive sensibilities are having a much harder time dominating music culture now, after 50-plus years of being treated like poets, prophets, and prodigies every time they coughed up a memorable couplet. It was precisely that tradition of over-reward that gave rise to the rock opera, a form energized as much by artistic aspiration as by hubris. Had Pete Townshend not had Kit Lambert whispering in his ear that he was a genius, he probably wouldn't have had the notion to expand his brilliant knack for writing radio singles into Tommy. But then, Tommy is the best-case scenario for rock opera, precisely because it represents a collision of the low nature of rock 'n' roll and the highfalutin yearning of its creator. Making LP-length stories using rock songs as a medium soon became a way for pop songwriters with a lust for gravitas to get around the more arduous work of making films, writing books, or, come to think of it, creating and staging operas. It was a symptom and a symbol of the need for greater and greater acclaim. The more respectable rock'n'roll got, the more tedious it became. And the less it came to matter to a mass audience whose interests had nothing to do with being respectable. Not because of rock operas, obviously, but not not because of them, either.
Stickles is an interesting exponent of the dilemmas of this tradition, and also its rewards. What a pleasure it is to see a rock-band guy with some defiance left in him. What a drag to see that defiance extend beyond its own power of seduction. We used to love for rock stars to tell us we were idiots for liking them. But that's because we thought rock stars had something important to tell us.
The symptoms of bipolar disorder are also the defining virtues of the rock star, pathologized. On the one pole: an insatiable appetite for gratification (sexual, chemical, financial, theatrical), a belief in exemption from the consequences of dangerous behavior, a disproportionate sense of personal grandeur. On the other: an unshakeable certainty that one's existence is without value, a bottomless dread of being seen and of being invisible, an inability to imagine the future. In the swing of the pendulum between aggrandizement and abnegation, it becomes very easy to think of yourself as an element in a narrative, a self that gets invented and torn down at random intervals—seen, admired, loathed, but never truly recognized, and therefore perpetually free/damned to reconstitute in whatever form is the most or least pleasing to the world around you. Which is to say, the audience.
These parallels appear not to be lost on Stickles, whose insistence that the record has a cogent, comprehensible narrative is representative not just of a creator's (warranted) ego, but of the condition's tendency to inflame the most internal processes into wide-screen epics of pity, fear, glory, and disgrace.
Whatever else is true, Stickles has, among his other accomplishments, managed to do something few of his fellow sufferers ever manage to do, which is to replicate the experience of thralldom to the bipolar spectrum. Not just the individual highs and lows, but the hellish process of it, the helplessness. It's an impressive accomplishment on many levels, and it might even be a great piece of art.
But that doesn't mean you want to live through it again.