The USS Monitor was a Navy warship which fought during the American Civil War. It sank and was lost at sea within a year of its launch.
Two centuries later and something about this inaugural iron clad is suddenly resonating with songwriters. In 2006, Brooklyn indie kids Bishop Allen composed an ode to the vessel, remarking upon how tough life must have been upon that ship on the day that it was destroyed, in comparison to the average day of the rock musician. Now, as if reinventing the art of one-upmanship, Titus Andronicus have recorded a near-offputtingly mammoth concept album, 65 minutes in length (’65 also being the year in which the Civil War ceased) and lacking in any lightness of scope. Their debut record may have taken its title from a Seinfeld joke, and The Monitor may lash out plenty of its own rousing irreverence, but this is from start to finish a deeply disturbed and serious thesis on paranoia, humanity and – of course – America.
After having named themselves after a bloody Shakespearean drama, it seems like they’ve also been taught a few lessons on the usage of allusion by the Bard of Avon, as The Monitor is carefully threaded together around a patchwork of Abraham Lincoln speeches and Walt Whitman poems, reenacted and recited by members of The Hold Steady, Ponytail and The Vivian Girls. As the saga creeps and leaps onward, every guitar strum piles on the menace and compacts itself into the bleak Orwellian atmosphere within, until each composition eventually finds its rupture and explodes into a refrain. But this isn’t where you’ll hear “all you need is love” or “follow the day and reach for the sun” being chanted ad infinitum. Instead we get slogans like “you will always be a loser” and “the enemy is everywhere”; painting blunt expressions of doom and harsh hues of paranoia which belong tippexed to the schoolbags of (tasteful) emo kids.
As for the haughty concept at the record’s heart, is the duty of the artist to bind all three floating and unattainable tenses together, and in using the ancient past as an inspirational allegory to somehow makes sense of modern times, Stickles achieves exactly this. However his only thought for the future is that there is none. Either that or there’s one which is even more hopeless than the present that we’d be almost better off without it. But it speaks for the redeeming power of music that – despite such a pessimistic outlook (“I am now the most miserable man living”) – even the most depressing of subject matter can be carelessly disregarded and surmised into a rowdy drunken singalong.
On the topic of redemption, it seems even like the most unsound of instruments (here: the bagpipes) can be justified if their usage is in the context of a breathless hi-brow record based around a historical figure. At the climax of ‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’, the shrill Scottish tones seems fitting and vital for the first time since Neutral Milk Hotel’s Anne Frank centric opus ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’, as their militant frequencies adorn and ascend the domesday racket which instrumentally self-alludes to the “your life is over/you cease to exist” breakdown of the group’s 2007 theme tune.
Precocious and self-indulgent, sure, but it’s literate and bursting with so much more life and grandiose than most hipsters of their age could even begin to dream about. And in providing a dusty musical backdrop and a coherent modern narrative relating to the plight of their forefathers, it’s more relevant and important than any history book on the subject. After one swig of its relentless darkness, you’re bound to be impressed and even more likely to be humming a tune from it, but most of all you’ll probably just want to take the band out for an ice cream and tell them that everything’s alright.