Review: Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

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Titus Andronicus have delivered yet another epic. The Most Lamentable Tragedy will reward your perseverance with operatic triumph and radio-ready angst – though to listen through it all in one sitting would be a feat of extreme endurance.

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Following the 2012 release of Local Business – a plainer, more stripped-back affair with no conceptual pretensions – The Most Lamentable Tragedy marks Titus Andronicus’ return to the bombastic sprawl of 2010’s The Monitor. Arguably the greatest sixty-five-minute concept album about the American Civil War ever made, the legacy of their second release haunts the band to this day – and its influence is evident throughout this latest effort.

Clocking in at a little over an hour and a half long, this twenty-nine-track exercise in songwriting excess chronicles the struggle of an unnamed hero against his own declining mental health. Parallels will, of course, be drawn with lead singer Patrick Stickles, who has been regularly forthcoming on the subject of his bipolar disorder, an affliction whose dichotomy is reflected in the savage lows and soaring highs of his music.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy begins with Stickles gurgling his way through a pair of catchy punk rock temper tantrums – complete with the usual combination of self-deprecating humour and surprisingly poppy hooks – but the record doesn’t really hit its stride until four tracks in with ‘Lonely Boy’, an infectious rockabilly pastiche in which Stickles begs the world to just ‘leave me alone’. This anthem for the antisocial features some of the album’s best moments, from the jaunty piano to the Springsteen-esque brass to the old school rock’n’roll guitar solo (one of several scattered generously throughout the record, courtesy of lead guitarist Adam Reich.) This gives way to the singalong melody and choir-like harmonies of ‘I Lost My Mind (+@)’, introducing a motif of madness that’s regularly revisited throughout the remaining songs.

The pace slows and the tone shifts in ‘Mr. E. Man’, a thoughtful track that is easy to overlook amongst its louder and loftier peers but possesses a charm that endures longer and touches deeper. The frisson-inducing finale in which Stickles confesses to being ‘afraid of what the doctor might say’ is the first glimpse of real sadness on the album. Up until this point his anguish is concealed behind madly, defiantly, almost passive-aggressively upbeat music, rendering this moment of vulnerability all the more poignant.

‘Fired Up’ is similarly affecting. From humble beginnings it surges forth into an ardent tirade against organised religion, with balladic strings and an orchestral climax that would feel at home in any concert hall. Meanwhile ‘Dimed Out’ is a track that endeavours to put the ‘manic’ into manic depression, but despite being the album’s first single it is one of many that feel all too expendable on an album packed with very similar songs.

The medieval dirge-like sound that begins ‘More Perfect Union’ (the title itself another hangover from The Monitor) is a jarring change from the guitar-driven rock that precedes it. Almost ten minutes in length, its final two-thirds are spent in a somewhat masturbatory instrumental breakdown, beginning with a sort of heavy metal parody and arriving – via Pink Floyd – at something poorly approximating the Gaelic folk-punk that distinguished the band’s early songwriting.

It’s at this point that The Most Lamentable Tragedy starts to get really exhausting, even for the most resilient of fans. ‘(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID’ (practically a ringtone compared to ‘More Perfect Union’ at a fleeting nine minutes and eleven seconds) will leave listeners wondering how it was that the band dragged it out to such extravagant length, but if you make it as far as ‘Fatal Flaw’ you’re in for one hell of a treat. A fun, shouty riot of a tune about codependency and prescription medication, it should give you the momentum you need to reach the end of the album. The relentlessly cheerful, string-driven refrain of ‘Come on, Siobhán’ is another oasis on a record increasingly mired in its own ambition.

Mournful pianos and hate-filled vocals form the entirety of ‘No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming’, a suicidal serenade unlike anything Titus have previously attempted. A wretched low to the jubilant highs found elsewhere, the fifth installment of the ‘No Future’ suite stands out from the filler that so badly congests the final part of this album.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a vast, rambling monument to mental illness, whose lyrics would suit the surrounds of a therapist’s office just as well as a sold-out venue, would look just as good scribbled on the cover of a high school notebook as scrawled in excrement on the walls of a cell. Treading a fine line between mainstream masterpiece and outsider art, the music of Titus Andronicus will never fail to both awe and entertain – though in this case you’d need inhuman stamina to take it all in at once: this album is up to its eyeballs in unnecessary filler. Were you to trim away even half the fat you’d be left with something equally satisfying and a whole lot easier to swallow.

But perhaps the art is in the process. The songs collected here are sketchbook-like, diaristic, a strange insight into the workings of an unsound mind. This record wouldn’t be complete without its imperfections and digressions, the not-quite-fatal flaws that reflect the damaged nature of the man who made it. Though still struggling to outrun the shadow of The Monitor, this is an album that combines fun with feeling and deserves to be listened to on its own merit.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is out now via Merge Records

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