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Review: Titus Andronicus' The Most Lamentable Tragedy is vital, vicious rock

The New Jersey sextet sprawls out, tightens up, and makes their best album yet

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Matthew Greeley

When you find yourself in the middle of a Titus Andronicus binge, it’s easy to slip into a parallel universe — a world much like ours, but where "+@" (the band’s preferred short form) is the biggest band in the world. "Ecce Homo" streaming from open car windows, "Titus Andronicus" blaring from arena monitors at the pivotal moments of sports games, breathless coverage of every new tweet from the band's account: it makes for a fun thought, albeit one that’s going to remain a fantasy. It’s not controversial to state that rock is a genre pinned to the margins of today’s musical climate. Hip-hop and electronic music have more commercial potency and more social and cultural relevance; they’re younger and more volatile.

Rock isn’t dead, but it’s increasingly a niche concern. Bands like Mumford & Sons and songs like "Take Me to Church," managing to grab casual ears through mercenary songcraft and bombast, are exceptions rather than the rule; strong albums from the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Courtney Barnett, taut and tuneful and rich in personality, strike the charts with glancing blows before slinking off to decent positions on year-end lists. For a band like Titus Andronicus — one that’s closer to Infinite Jest than 50 Shades of Grey — this means their prominence is destined to lag behind their intensity, their ambition, and their effort.

This is a five-act rock opera about manic depression and self-improvement

The Most Lamentable Tragedy, their daring and relentless fourth studio album, isn’t going to change their fate. It’s the longest entry in their discography by a wide margin, and it’s the most narratively complex. This is a five-act rock opera about manic depression and working towards self-improvement with the help of an alternate self, and it's stuffed with references to the band’s earlier work, their predecessors, and the world around them. (If you want to know more — like, a lot more — I recommend perusing frontman Patrick Stickles’ insanely detailed annotations on the album’s lyrics over at Genius.)

The album’s running time and intricacy aren’t much of a surprise: this is a band named after a Shakespearean tragedy that broke out with an hour-plus concept record about the Civil War, a band that’s stretched a song series called "No Future" out over three albums and seven years. They’re no strangers to complication. All of this makes for an imposing listen, even for people who are ostensibly paid to take imposing listens and render them less so. Hitting play on TMLT is a little like sitting down to watch The Wire for the first time, or eyeing that paperback copy of Anna Karenina tucked into your bookshelf. You know you’re going to enjoy yourself, but you have to jump a few mental hurdles before making that commitment.

I cannot emphasize this enough: make the commitment. If you never feel the need to revisit the album’s narrative components, short interstitial tracks, pseudo Celtic dirges, and gorgeous hymns for Egyptian sun gods after your first pass, feel free to do so. Even then, you’ll still be left with some of the best music this band has ever made: colorful, concise flamethrowers, dreamy pieces of ambient punk, songs that sound like Bruce Springsteen distilled until the result could burn a hole in your floor. (That’s how it works, of course: their greatest displays of brevity, tucked within their most sprawling and unwieldy document.) Until TMLT, I’d never associated listening to Titus Andronicus with anything like fun. Admiration and respect, sure, or maybe the feeling you get when you finish something that’s difficult but necessary; fun, definitely not. It’s everywhere you turn on TMLT.

The first Titus Andronicus song one could describe as "romantic"

The album’s finest moments seem to come in pairs, twin blasts scattered throughout its almost 30 tracks. The bluesy, swaggering "Lonely Boy" prefaces the tight harmonies of the Daniel Johnston quasi-cover "I Lost My Mind." A drunken, uproarious romp through The Pogues’ "A Pair of Brown Eyes" is married to the sweet, pining "Come On, Siobhán," which is both the first Titus Andronicus song one could describe as "romantic" and the first one that sounds like both Thin Lizzy and The Verve. (Making Stickles’ stubbly yawp the center of a lovesick, string-flecked piece of radio rock might be this album’s greatest achievement.) Topping them all is the central twosome of "Fired Up" and "Dimed Out," twin joyrides through the New Jersey wetlands in a roadster without working brakes. This is vital music in the truest sense of the word: you can’t help but feel like Stickles needs to make it to live.

It’s still hard to imagine a Titus Andronicus song slotting into Beats 1 alongside "Cha Cha" and Drake’s radio show, and I’m probably not going to hear it from any cars on the street below me this summer. But this is big music, and if you submit to The Most Lamentable Tragedy, you’ll come out the other side changed: wowed by the sheer scale of it, exhausted by its breadth, maybe even inspired by its reach. In a strong year for music like it, it’s carved out a spot near the top of its field, no small feat. And though the title of "biggest band in the world" is an anachronism at this point — a title linking The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and U2 and Nirvana and… Coldplay? — TMLT captures a band worthy of holding the belt, even if only in your dreams.