I hate to do it, I really do. I want to say that the new Titus Andronicus album, while taking the essential step back from the monolithic ambition of the band’s previous two albums, The Airing of Grievances and, of course, The Monitor, accomplishes the organic punk-rock pathos that the project, Local Business, demands. “It isn’t as huge sounding, but there’s just as much at stake,” I want to write as a concluding remark before happily restarting the album for an indulgent post-review listen. Regrettably, I can’t. Local Business disappoints on almost every level, especially on those that Titus Andronicus has previously soared. Yes, it’s undeniable that the hooks are there, especially on the latter half of the bar-room, uh, highbrow woe-is-me “Still Life With Hot Deuce on a Silver Platter,” in which Stickles spits something akin to advice like a cigarette-in-the-no-smoke-zone cool-dude to some starry-eyed 16-year old with an Ayn Rand under his arm, but the foregrounded issue with Local Business, especially compared to the band’s earlier, beer-goggled thrum, is that everything just sounds wrung out, plastic-coated, worse.
The instruments–Stickles’ voice included–are scrubbed of character, wound tightly together into a mechanism with all its gears revealed, so it isn’t just the textures that bore, but the actual notes and chords limply whimpered into an approximation of life as well. From the induction “Okay I think by now we’ve now established, everything is inherently worthless”–smirkingly generalized, pop-philosophized–the vocals fail to accomplish the register necessary to convince the words into justification. The drums are whatever, and the guitars aren’t bad, but they aren’t particularly great either. The Springsteen-folk licks on “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape…,” with each repetition grow thinner and wimpier, and the power-ballad riffage that begins the second half of “My Eating Disorder” are exaggerated and contrived-sounding, a mistake that feels stolen from the aging Rivers Cuomo.
Lazy songwriting plagues the whole thing, as if sprinkling obtuse, rejected English paper topics (“Content vs. Context,” anybody?) was good enough. On “Still Life,” Stickles repeats “Here it goes again, I hear you took it to another level” over and over, apparently unconcerned that it doesn’t really mean anything against the rest of the song. He opens “In A Small Body,” “Don’t tell me I was born free, that joke has been old since high school,” and so reminds us of the doomed bands we listened to, played in, and saw perform when we were in high school and, huh, they didn’t want to act their ages, didn’t want authority getting in their way, didn’t want to conform or become some kind of social construct either. It’s all well and good, well-tread but fairly timeless material, except that we know Stickles is capable of getting it across in ways that are so much more interesting.
And when he reaches, he often comes away with something. We can forgive the rhyme with “slave” in the previous line, and take “I know some kids who’d kill for this kind of cage” as an example of a line with a dimensional quality that is absent on so many others here (“I’m going insane?” Give me a break). That moment performs the self-awareness that’s gobbed over the rest of the album (it isn’t the easiest to sympathize with “a drop in a deluge of hipsters”) with an original, reversed tension that’s genuinely provocative and interesting. Regrettably, he mostly doesn’t reach, even on the early single “In A Big City,” which addresses the condition of Being Pat Stickles and is occasionally clever (the pun on “So taxing on the dollars and the sense…”), but on which he can’t resist the groan-inducing boardwalk-t-shirt obvious, “From Jersey I come, but I pump my own gas.” Too often the album’s most aware moments crop up (“Put the whole thing on a t-shirt” Stickles declares on “Ecce Homo,” at least partially in reference to the “us against them”–regional or ideological conflict; it seems both–that is imagined into a lot of the songs) as expository gestures that detract from the scenes and stories.
It’s important to mention again that it’s not all bad. “(I Am The) Electric Man,” is the kind of stupid that you can’t help getting behind, and manages a degree of fun that recalls New York Dolls in its playfulness and personality. The band, even bizarrely cleaned up and stripped down, still manage the smoky power of a group you want to go see whenever they’re in town, and when Stickles musters the conviction his ear for tunefulness, humor, and wrought energy can propel a song through your car’s AUX input, cd changer, cassette deck?, into the air accompanied by another voice that, after remembering yourself, you realize is your own. So there’s that. Local Business isn’t a bad album, but it doesn’t completely pull itself off either.