On the surface, punk rock and Bruce Springsteen are strange bedfellows, but look deeper and you'll find a unifying theme. At their best, both punk and the Boss address the desperation and alienation implicit in folding yourself into the means of production that drives our capitalist culture. You oil the cogs of the machine with either your work or your rebellious blood, and it's that challenge that informs Titus Andronicus' second album, The Monitor.
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The New Jersey quintet emerged in 2008 with The Airing of Grievances, a rollicking fist-pumping disc that overflows with catchy, fervent anthems, heady allusions, and bad attitude. The references range from existential philosopher Albert Camus and Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Breughel to popular contemporary authors Cormac McCarthy and Hunter S. Thompson (not to mention the Seinfeld reference in the title), which neatly fits the band's ethos of blending high and low art. Even the music reflects this, in its mix of thundering distortion-drenched guitars with the horns and keyboards that (given the band's Jersey upbringing) first earned them comparisons to the Boss.
It's an affirmation of the affinity of aggression and deliberation, punk angst and reasoned reflection, that finds even better expression in The Monitor. Inspired by Ken Burns' Civil War series, it opens with Abe Lincoln's quote, "If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher." For the next 65 minutes, frontman Patrick Stickles traces the travails of an angry young man who trades New Jersey for Boston and struggles with a heightened sense of injustice. He argues, "You were never no virgin, kid; you were fucked from the start," in "A Pot in Which to Piss"; indulges his feelings of "us and them" on "Titus Andronicus Forever," with its chorus "the enemy is everywhere"; and even offers a song with the subtitle "Responsible Hate Anthem."
Titus Andronicus is scheduled to perform on Friday, September 3, at Trunk Space.
In this way, The Monitor conflates the Civil War with punk's perennial hostility toward The Man. However, unlike so-called "real" punkers, who fall back on knee-jerk sloganeering and bellicose posturing, Stickles recognizes that cherishing hate is as much a dead end as the ideas he rages against. He acknowledges it's another side of the same coin, singing, "I know what little I've known of peace is after doing what you've done to me," and confessing his own conformity: "Half the time I open my mouth to speak, it's to repeat something that I heard on TV."
He goes on to invoke Springsteen, who remains less a musical touchstone than a spiritual one. Though Springsteen's characters are beset by troubles, their solution isn't to rage against circumstance but to engage the open road's unlimited byways to forge a new self. In this manner, The Monitor reads like a punk's discovery of maturity and his own complicity in the anger and frustration he feels. Titus Andronicus realize that taking responsibility is the first step on the road to recovery.