Album Review: The Monitor

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a New Jersey punk band named after an obscure William Shakespeare play, obsessed with Bruce Springsteen, and with only one release under their belt, decides to write a 65 minute concept album about the Civil War. No? Well, it was anything but expected from The Monitor, the near-perfect second album from Titus Andronicus.

From the end of the rendition of Abraham Lincoln’s address to the Young Man’s Lyceum of Springfield, IL in which he declares, “As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide”, it’s pretty clear the album is going to embark on something far beyond epic. On the title track “A More Perfect Union”, the band conjures a grown man sing-along with the energy of a Flogging Molly tune and a nod to The Boss with a critical lyric change. It feels like the first breath of barroom punk, and when they incite us to “rally around the flag”, I’m ready to hold high whichever flag comes my way first. This is music that deserves fireworks.

The band somehow manages to keep the energy flowing with “Titus Andronicus Forever” (declaring incessantly that “the enemy is everywhere”), amazingly advancing the Civil War theme past the all-encompassing patriotism of the first track. Beyond that is “No Future Part III: Escape from No Future”, a song that starts detailing the doubts held by a soldier who feels like an insignificant pawn in a battalion of losers.

“Richard III or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and the Madness of the Crowd (Responsible Hate Anthem)” with its perfectly long name brings the folk to an up to this point meat and potatoes rock ‘n roll album. The hero of the story starts to realize the horrors of war over a warm steel guitar and a vibrant fiddle, declaring “only one dream that I keep close…the one with my hands at your throat”. Most of the time, lead singer Patrick Stickles seems overwhelmed by the demanding nature of singing his own songs, but the lyrics he does manage to get out are as emotionally delivered as those of John Lennon or Neil Young’s solo work. What impresses me is the band’s ability to transition from one song to another without losing the attention of the listener, and with an album that’s over an hour long, an ability to create a listenable ambiance is critical.

The three-part “A Pot in Which to Piss” comes next, slowing the tempo down for the first time on the album. A big buildup leads to an anticlimactic middle section, the low point of the album, which is eventually salvaged by a trademark barroom piano that will never grow tiring to the American ear. The lyrics up to this point have been consistently unoriginal, but the harrowing images presented by Stickles on the track shows signs of some superb songwriting.

Finally, only a little over halfway through the album, our hero declares: “this is a war we can’t win.” The despondency begins to set in on “Four Score and Seven”, by far their most quotable track. The refrain “you won’t be laughing so hard” is delivered so inspiringly, it begs you to grab a buddy and a beer and belt it. It’s a brilliantly composed song, declaring that “humans treat humans like humans treat hogs” during one of its many climaxes. And at the end, nothing’s changed, because “it’s still us against them…and they’re winning”.

The only contemporarily set track on the album, “Theme From Cheers”, still harkens back to hopeless emotions of the war using tales of working-class alcohol worries. It’s their most approachable song, and though it shows alcohol is the only possible way they can find happiness, our heroes come to the inevitable conclusion: “what the fuck was it for anyway?”

As with every arena-rock album, it comes with the requisite power ballad, in this case “To Old Friends and New”. Stickles decides to share the microphone with singer Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak to create a pleasing yin to Stickle’s gravelly yang. The songwriting isn’t the best, but it’s brilliantly executed (“it’s all right to kill/and it’s all right to steal/as long as you hold up your part of the deal”). It seems like the fitting ending to a masterful album, but little do we know…

…That “the enemy is everywhere!’…again. But this time, in the refrain of “Titus Andronicus Forever…”, the subtle departure from the naïve courage of our heroes from before is apparent: “I’m worthless and weak, and I’m sick and I’m scared”. Also notable is the completely out of place solo on tenor sax, though a nod to Clarence Clemmons seems to be needed for every band hailing from the Garden State.

And after all that comes a fourteen-minute song entitled “The Battle of Hampton Roads”. It begins with Lincoln declaring (from his first inaugural address), “I am loathe to close.” It’s fitting, especially for a band that seemed like it wanted to hold on to the magic for another side of the LP. It’s a nearly indescribable masterpiece; to do so would do music journalism injustice. It’s just may be the best rock song I’ve ever heard, and then there’s a bagpipe solo.

So, I have given, as every great album deserves, a track-by-track hyperbolic breathless ode to an album I have now owned for two weeks. Music like this is rare to come by, something so instantly engaging that I am able to separate myself from my headphones and enter an entirely different perspective. Is it life changing? I’m not willing to go that far, but what a fucking awesome record.

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