Given that their name was inspired by one of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedies, the angst Titus Andronicus has ingrained in their sound over the course of the past ten years ought not come as any surprise. Considering the fact that they turned their sophomore set The Monitor into a concept piece revolving around the Navy’s first fully commissioned ironclad battleship in the American Civil War, that penchant for drama was manifest early on. Likewise, their fourth album, the grandly titled The Most Lamentable Tragedy, was a five-act rock opera that band leader and founder Patrick Stickles once effusively described as a “complicated metaphor about manic depression, melding elements of philosophy, psychology, and science fiction through the plight of one troubled protagonist’s inner demons.”
It leads one to guess that Stickles is a stickler, reason perhaps that he alone remains the sole constant in the band’s ever shifting trajectory. Titus Andronicus have never been an easy band to reckon with, and yet with each new offering, they obviously aim for a higher purpose. At times, they become so entangled with pomp and pretence, it’s overshadowed their essential dynamic. They are after all, a group well equipped to merge melodies with metaphors, often through over-arched attempts to draw deeper meanings from incisive songs. At other times, the flash and fury was overwrought for no reason other than an aim for a higher purpose. Yet to borrow from the Bard himself, the approach seemed “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Ultimately, that’s a harsh judgement because at its essence A Productive Cough is a compelling effort, a bit more ragtag and subdued than previous albums, and in its own way, a bit more intimate as well. Not that it’s any less passionate or petulant than Stickles has come across before; as always it finds him baring his soul and shouting his tirades to the heavens. Here though, the anthemic thrust of earlier efforts is tempered by subtlety and constraint.
Granted, much of that attempt at restraint will be lost on those who have never fully focused on the band’s music until now. Subtlety is a relative term in Stickler’s world. The desperate “Home Alone” sounds like an anguished outtake from John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band sessions. “Number One (In New York)” starts softly but steadily builds on an assertive stance. It also takes a disarming jab at the current occupant of the White House (“A guy who’s more boorish, a guy who’s more selfish, with elves as his helpers/Hopeless hapless masses are dopes, they suppose.”) While the pace may be slack in comparison, the fury is obvious. The same can be said of “Real Talk,” which again, lays it on the line. “If life is as tough as the last couple of months, we’re in for a real rough year,” Stickles declare over a pounding, brass-infused sing-along, the despair and disappointment all too obvious. “If the people upstairs acted like they even cared, I’d crack a real wide smile.”
Stickler’s sense of outrage reaches full press with a raspy, extended call and response version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” an ultimate assertion of outrage and one well suited to his insurgent intents. While Dylan used sarcasm and cynicism to get his point across, Stickler rails on relentlessly.
Despite occasional attempts at restraint and the fact it’s only seven songs long, A Productive Cough provides Titus Andronicus with another bold manifesto. They might have varied the volume, but they’re still railing with their customary resolve.