“Okay, I think by now we’ve established that everything is inherently worthless, and there is nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” Thus opens Local Business, the newest record from New Jersey punk band Titus Andronicus, out today on XL Recordings. The record picks up where The Monitor—their flawless Ken Burns-esque Civil War concept record—left off: a nation/central character ravaged by the polarized nature of the contemporary world finally comes to terms with its elemental duality, only to be faced with the next daunting phase of adulthood. Local Business explores the personal reconstruction after a monumental crisis, and how to define responsibility in a world more interested in gross sales than personal integrity. Oh yeah, and guitar solos.
If The Monitor is the punk rock soundtrack of the Civil War—as it most obviously is—Local Business is the Industrial Revolution. As industry continued to spread from the northeast throughout the country and the world, the Western doctrine of capitalism came into its own, finally giving our nation an identity separate from Great Britain ’s little brother. Similarly, after a tumultuous young adulthood, Patrick Stickles and band have found tangible success and buzz, and they now realize they have work to do in order to grow (or just sustain) their presence and reputation. Opting for a more classic pub rock sound and a significantly less overblown recording process, Local Business finds Titus Andronicus establishing their identity within the scene.
The lyric above comes from “Ecce Homo”, the five and change minute thesis of Local Business. Never one to pull any punches, Stickles searches for the root of his discomfort while recognizing that life must go on. With more dough in his pocket and validation from the international music community, he’s left to face his demons alone, with no one left to blame. Just like the title suggests (translated to “Behold the Man,” as said by Pontius Pilate about Jesus Christ), the song is a presentation of his current state, skinny legs and all. “I heard them say the white man created existential angst when he ran out of other problems, because the thing about those problems was, typically, more money would solve them.”
The juxtapositions of self, money and duty continue throughout Local Business, whether he’s “writing manifestos on the back of B.O.A. receipts” or gorging himself after days of self-imposed starvation. The climax of the first half of the record is certainly “Food Fight” and “My Eating Disorder,” which documents Stickles’ Selective Eating Disorder—or as he calls it, Patrick Stickles Disease. Certainly related to his Manic Depression, Stickles suffers from having the pickiest palate, and thus is almost always malnourished (you can read about his struggles with Selective Eating Disorder in his February 2012 interview with Paste Magazine). While a condition of this sort isn’t exactly relatable for most of the general public, “My Eating Disorder” is a terribly poignant song about the confusion that arises from accepting responsibility for one’s actions. And only Titus Andronicus can turn a violent vomiting bout into a killer series of guitar solos. “Nobody answers for me now, nobody else’s job to figure out why I’m scared to open up my mouth, why there’s so many things I can’t allow.”
The record’s key track and lead single “In a Big City” kicks off the second half, which is filled with fewer questions and more realizations than the beginning. Here, we find Stickles at his most triumphant and accepting, where he’s finally comfortable with his place in the “deluge of hipsters,” and the overblown marketplace that is New York City. This embrace (if reluctant) of capitalism is further driven home by the song’s short, anthemic pop composition. The result is simultaneously the most radio friendly and mature song of their career. “If you’re chasing any other kind of currency, son, you’re really doing little more than twiddling your thumbs.”
From there, the record continues to expand on the idea that adulthood is recognizing one’s place in the world, to varying degrees of success. In “In a Small Body” he’s ready to take on the reins of his life, cautioning those around him to not “stand in [his] way.” “I Am the Electric Man”—written after his electrocution incident earlier this year—finds Stickles proud to be part of a larger system. The closer “Tried to Quit Smoking” is the most reflective track, essentially a nine-minute exploration of past actions made by a younger Stickles. He accepts there is no answer that is a fix to his problems, but he’s willing to keep on trying.
Undoubtedly one of the most compelling figures in independent music today, Patrick Stickles has long straddled the line between nihilist and existentialist, often blurring the difference. Pulling philosophical influences from minds as diverse as Albert Camus, William Lloyd Garrison, Norman Mailer, Pieter Brueghel, Billy Bragg and Christopher Nolan (among others), Stickles stiches a pastiche of the human condition in the modern era. Not unlike the films of Woody Allen, Stickles inserts himself into every discourse, simultaneously acting as narrator, protagonist and innocent bystander. Over the course of their three records, Stickles has learned to accept the “benign indifference of the universe” (“No Future, Part I”/“No Future Part Two: The Days After No Future”), realized the role his enemies play in his self-actualization (“To Old Friends and New”/“The Battle of Hampton Roads) and now he’s trying “to swallow while [he’s] still young that [his] dick is to short to fuck the world” (“In a Small Body”). Don’t forget, it’s still a punk rock record.
If Local Business is indeed inspired by the Industrial Revolution, then it marks yet another major era in the history of the United States Titus Andronicus has explored. With all its religious undertones, unsteady footing and European references, their fantastic debut record The Airing of Grievances can be read as an examination of post-colonial America. If you place The Monitor and Local Business following in order, you have an extended allegory for the birth and growth of our nation. If you think about their catalogue in these terms, you just may be able to predict what comes next. I, for one, am really pumped for the Titus Andronicus Civil Rights record.
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. If you hadn’t noticed, Titus Andronicus is his favorite band, and he may be a bit biased.