Album Review: Titus Andronicus - A Productive Cough
You want to like Patrick Stickles. Actually, maybe not everyone does; his hyperactive manner and over-working brain might rub some people the wrong way. But, for others who want to see this kind of dedication in their statement punk rock, Stickles is pretty much the textbook band leader. Over the years he has been through several different periods of emotional turmoil and varying modes of creative output, dragging Titus Andronicus doggedly along with him. The most rigorous efforts he’s put them through have yielded their best work – they have a couple of definably epic concept albums under their belts already in the form of 2010’s Civil War-based The Monitor and 2015’s depression fuelled rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy. When Stickles gets an idea in his head, the monomania drives him to his next output. For Titus Andronicus’ fifth album, A Productive Cough, the idea that’s stuck in his craw is to try and present a set of songs that are more accessible, more warm and welcoming, harping on classic rock, punk and folk tropes.
In theory, it’s not a bad idea at all, as the previous album The Most Lamentable Tragedy was a 5-act, 2-disc, 29-track, 92-minute opus, full of harsh screams and walls of guitars – all of which scared off many established fans, and can hardly have invited in many new ones. And, despite his seeming disaffectedness, a larger fandom for his music is exactly what Stickles wants to cultivate. Therefore going for a more accessible sound seems like an obvious move, but it is one that has made A Productive Cough almost the complete opposite of its predecessor: 7 tracks, 47 minutes, and comparatively little screaming or ear-shattering guitars.
This, on the surface, seems like an exciting reinvention for Titus Andronicus, and it could well have been – if the songs were actually there. Unfortunately the 7 tracks here – one of which is an unadvised cover of the Bob Dylan all-timer ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – seem to find Stickles wrestling with his desire to create something populist while also being grandiose and poetic, which often finds Titus Andronicus falling between the two stools. They often stretch to 7 or more minutes, which only seems to accentuate how little actual content they comprise. ‘Number One (In New York)’ opens the album with an piano-led drawl, that sounds like a perfect intro to a classic Titus rocker, but never takes off, merely bobbing its way through its 8-minutes. ‘Real Talk’ repeats the hook “if the weather’s as bad as the weatherman says/ we’re in for a real bad storm,” which forms the crux of a song that aims to take stock of the current political climate, but really doesn’t get under the surface at all, meandering about on basic images of unrest for 7 minutes. In ‘Above The Bodega (Local Business)’, Stickles presents a utopian kind of world where the proprietor of his local acts as a confidante, kind of like the classic role of the bartender in an old Hollywood movie. It’s a cute idea, and has a folksy hook, but the song doesn't manifest any teeth or message at any point.
Titus Andronicus’ lineup is ever-expanding and contracting to meet Stickles’ demands, and you can certainly feel his magnetic ring-leader presence in the committed performances. This is most clear in A Productive Cough’s one true rocker, ‘Home Alone’, which is gung-ho fun throughout its 8-minute bar-room stomp. Lyrically it finds Stickles more or less just repeating the lines “Mommy’s not home/ Daddy’s not home/ I’m home alone,” over and over again, which can become wearing very fast, but when in a good mood it does ring with a kind of childish glee that’s infectious – especially thanks to the additional backing vocals and radical guitar solo. As I’ve mentioned, they cover Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and they give it their all, making it a worthy version – but one that should have been saved for live shows you feel. In amidst all this blowing off steam there is one heartfelt moment with the relatively slight ‘Crass Tattoo’, which finds Megg Farrell singing with just piano, delivering Stickles’ story about his beloved arm marking. Her performance of his words is dedicated and wrings out the emotion of this origin story, but it sits slightly oddly on this album, making you think that there could have been more sombre songs like this to balance out the longer, more off-the-wall ones.
A Productive Cough seems like an apt title for this album on the surface. While, undoubtedly, it took a lot of time, work and engagement to put it together, it still comes across as a throw-away release in their catalogue. It sounds like a band just switching on the recorder and jamming for a little while, then putting out some tracks. Next to the tightly written and recorded The Most Lamentable Tragedy, A Productive Cough sounds just like that: a small, vaguely satisfying ejection of hot air. If there is a pattern to be seen in Titus Andronicus’ discography so far, it’s that they follow up their epic concept albums with much more lax ones (Local Business following The Monitor, this one following The Most Lamentable Tragedy), so we can hold out some hope that with this one now out of the way, Stickles will return to something more in line with his monumental vision of what punk rock can be.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 8th March 2018.