Mar 29, 2010 Web Exclusive
Even if The Who are the only non-prog rock band that ever really pulled off what could truly be called concept albums, it's been entertaining over the years hearing musicians hang songs around a theme. Usually.
With The Monitor, Titus Andronicus co-opts the Civil War for use as a metaphor in a group of songs about someone who leaves New Jersey for Boston and is unhappy with his decision. It's a laudably ambitious prospect, to be sure, especially carried to double-album length.
The Civil War can be an unwieldy creative device, for those who might brave such a move, but the band steps around that potential muddle by cherry-picking references and elements of the war and draping them over the songs for presumable poignancy. This gets strange quickly.
The opening track, "A More Perfect Union" is a prime example. The lyrics draw from disparate inspirational touchstones, beginning with Springsteen with "I never wanted to change the world when I'm looking for a new New Jersey/'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to die" to the closing unison voices singing "Rally around the flag/Glory, glory hallelujah/His truth is marching on."
Elsewhere on that track, singer Patrick Stickles switches character, lurching from Jersey into a smattering of war-period references, with seemingly little connection other than the fact that Civil War soldiers endured hardships just like someone dealing with buyer's remorse after changing locales. The track that follows, "Titus Andronicus Forever," presumably drives home that parallel with a chant of "The enemy is everywhere."
Musically, the band plays like The Replacements in alternately scrappy/thoughtful approaches, with Stickles usually emoting like Conor Oberst at his most thoughtfully melodramatic. The execution here might have seemed a bit more authentic had they been going for a pure concept album with a Civil War theme; unfortunately, hearing Stickles locked in bloodied-but-unbowed mode throughout the record doesn't add any greater emotional depth to the intertwining themes.
As the album closes in on the fourteenth minute of the closing "The Battle of Hampton Roads," you may have already found yourself wondering if Johnny will ever be marching home. (www.titusandronicus.net)
Author rating: 4/10
Average reader rating: 8/10
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