The roots of Titus Andronicus' new magnum opus, the 29-track, 93-minute, five-act punk rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy, came quietly and quickly.
In two evenings, a week apart from one another, when the band was on the road in early summer of 2013, frontman Patrick Stickles wrote what would be record's two shortest songs "Look Alive" and "Lookalike," exploring the philosophical questions that led to the intriguing story arc of The Most Lamentable Tragedy.
"One was about preferring to be asleep over being awake, and the other was one about meeting a person with your identical appearance but opposite demeanor and having this person take over your life and erase your old attitude," Stickles says. "After having that in place — an attitude of hatred for and terror of life, and this whole idea of a doppelgänger who reflects some kind of submerged, obscured element to your personality — I just kind of extrapolated what the rest of that little story would be."
From conception to completion to album release to touring, it's been more than two years since Stickles penned those first two tracks. But, he says, working within the limitations and restrictions of a lengthy, cohesive story felt liberating, giving him a steady artistic direction instead of feeling lost in the face of unlimited possibilities.
"People make it out that it was this hard thing. It wasn't. It was cold and calculating. If you were to sit me down at the desk now and give me a guitar and say, 'Give me 18 substantive original songs,' I'd be paralyzed," he says. "But a lot of the decisions were made for me at other stages of the process. I know this is the story, [and] there are angry moments, happy moments, moments of confusion, moments of romantic longing, and they go here, here, here, and here.
"You just plug stuff in and it's a lot easier to do that when you say I have a distinct, succinct purpose to achieve, rather than saying, 'I just want to make a beautiful thing. I want to make something great.' That's not useful when it comes time to pick up the pen or the guitar."
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The first act of The Most Lamentable Tragedy is "the most thorough explanation of why it sucks to be alive," Stickles says. What follows is the character's experiencing the thrill of accepting a different viewpoint as the mysterious doppelgänger makes the case that life is a great and joyous thing. Across the five acts, the changing seasons help shape the narrative, the transformation of the natural world happening in parallel with internal changes.
"It's all really sensible. It's about something illogical; it has an illogical subject matter, and it's intended to reflect that. It should sound sort of like the work of a sick mind. A sick mind is the focus of the story, so it's a question of form reflecting the function, but it's just filling in the blanks really," Stickles says. "When there's a part of the story where the character is upset and angry, let's make a song that sounds angry, maybe some kind of punk song perhaps? It takes a long time and you have to have faith. It's a weird thing, and maybe a lot of people wouldn't want to do it, but I wanted to do it. 'Heads down. Let's go. Making a rock opera.'"
Released in July, The Most Lamentable Tragedy has led to the most positive reviews of Titus Andronicus' career. One major reason is the strength of the songs, each one written to be just as approachable outside the context of the broader story.
"It's is one little movie, but the challenge was to make it such that it could have a plot and taken as a whole could mean one complete thing, but if you wanted to pull one song out of it and put it in your iTunes playlist, or put it in a Titus Andronicus live concert setlist, that it would make sense and it wouldn't seem bizarre," Stickles says.