THE TAO OF TITUS
April 10, 2010
By ROBERT BIESELIN
WHO: Titus Andronicus.
WHAT: Indie rock.
WHEN: 9:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Maxwell’s, 1039 Washington St., Hoboken; 201-653-1703 or maxwellsnj.com.
Walt Whitman called it the “efflux of the soul” — the cumulative product of introspection and interaction that fashions a man’s form, and retrofits him with a reservoir for all-you-can-eat happiness and free-for-all wisdom.
It’s easy to picture the old gray poet, stroking his woodsy beard and pondering this slow extraction of self with a serene wink of merriment.
It’s a little harder to picture the same of Patrick Stickles.
Aesthetically, the lead singer of Titus Andronicus sports his facial hair with more of a madman’s disregard than the earned eccentricity of a poet. Lyrically, he tallies his growth in terms of lessons learned through failure (and commiserative boozing) rather than triumph (and the self-celebrating pop of Brut corks).
And yet, while driving his tour van from Boston to his hometown of Glen Rock, Stickles addressed his unpredictable efflux with a certain joyful candor and centered effusion.
“This is probably the happiest time of my life,” he said through cell static after wrestling his hands-free headset into place. “I’m a blessed man — probably the most fortunate man that’s ever lived.”
An odd expression from the man whose latest album, “The Monitor,” reanimates an incongruous quote from Abraham Lincoln:
“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
To call the 24-year-old a precocious contradiction would be something of an understatement (not to mention a cliché and disservice).
Spelling bee champions are precocious. An NRA member who likes Rachmaninoff and supports PETA is a contradiction.
Stickles’ division of manner and mood — and that of his band’s rollicking indie-rock — hints at something deeper; something better addressed in a Springsteen-quoting album named for the USS Monitor, and loosely inspired by the American Civil War.
“Those are intended metaphors but I can only really speak about my own experiences,” he said of the band’s second album, released in early March on XL Recordings. “I don’t know anything about the Civil War, but I know a lot about
what it [the phrase] means to me and how it informs the way I look at my own life, my interactions with others and my interactions with myself.”
“Yes,” he added, “it’s abstract.” clarifying the comment with a vague reference to the political, personal and interpersonal definitions of “civil war” and nodding towards the interconnectedness of life.
On the phone, as on the record, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly Stickles is saying. He speaks in erudite waves that range from vague to aggressive. Still, you get the impression in song and speech that he chooses his words, jokes and metaphors with great care — and, even when hazy, it all plays to thought-provoking enjoyment and steady revelation.
On the track “Titus Andronicus Forever,” the refrain of “The enemy is everywhere” rings with a certain sense of humor, while the recurring line “It’s still us against
them” in “Four Score and Seven” hits with a heavier heart and calls to mind Stickles’ reflections of his time as an alienated literature student at Ramapo College.
“They come from the same place in my heart,” he said of the lyrics and the broader battle whose current runs through the album and his biography. “There’s an obliqueness of this enemy that makes it so difficult to defeat; that makes it such a formidable opponent even when you see it in yourself. It’s like trying to fight a toxic plume or something …”
The moaning roarer “A Pot in Which to Piss” is less about fighting a ubiquitously oblique enemy and more about fighting the schoolmates who once gave Stickles a swirly — and he makes a pretty moving play out of the bathroom humor.
"I've been called out, cuckolded, castrated, but I survived/I am covered in urine and excrement, but I'm alive/And there's a white flag in my pocket never to be unfurled …”
It’s not so much a rallying revenge of the nerds plotline, so much as it is a graphic pinch at Daniel Johnston’s “The Story of an Artist”; the pursuit of purity and freedom by a musician trying to overcome society’s “foolish norms” and taunts.
Some call the album’s abject footholds nihilistic.
Stickles, in a calm and measured tone, called it “part of the battle” — the same thing that drives him to drink and read in excess.
“This idea that we believe in nothing spawns from the desire to free ourselves from our indoctrinations and accept the arbitrary nature of our universe,” he said.
“That’s not to say that nothing has any inherent meaning, but just that we can’t be bound to accept what our society tells us is meaningful. We have to come to those decisions on our own. We have to decide what gives our lives meaning.”
For the past three years, Titus (rounded out by primary members Ian Graetzer and Eric Harm and revolving stand-ins) has applied a similar ethos to its music: It’s clawing, but accessible; dejected, but never yielding.
And it’s becoming popular, even if Stickles is hesitant to agree.
Rolling Stone dubbed Titus one of the “Best New Bands of 2010,” saying they “rock as thoroughly as any new band you’ll hear all year.”
Pitchfork once again pinned “The Monitor” with its coveted “Best New Music” tag, and the album remains on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart, a fluctuating list of up-and-coming acts.
Stickles takes the so-called wins in stride. Talking through the static, he seemed much more concerned with navigating the “postmodern nightmare” of life than the
post-CD nightmare of the music industry.
“In life, when developing our personal ideologies, I find it’s best not to make it a paint-by-number sort of thing,” he said. “We live in a wide and wondrous world of
ideas and there’s no reason we can’t pick the ones that make sense to us.”
“Here,” as Walt Whitman would say, “is realization. Here is a man tallied — he realizes here what he has in him.”
“It goes back to what I was saying,” Stickles added. “We have to be unafraid to determine our own agenda.”
[UNEDITED VERSION - Copyright 2010 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.]