On Titus Andronicus’s last studio release, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the band went for it all in absolute grandiose fashion with a massive triple album, punk rock opera. In the roll out to the follow-up, A Productive Cough, there were quotes that main man Patrick Stickles was “pulling a reverse Bob Dylan”, abandoning his punk roots. While there may be less screaming guitars and pounding drums Stickles and company certainly did not retreat from their raucous ways or any of their overblown grandiose.
+@ (as the band is known) is really Stickles at this point and while Dylan is a reference a closer one in both style and geography is Bruce Springsteen. While Bruce retreated from the double album The River with introspective Nebraska, here Stickles trades the feedback for a calliope of instrumentation layered over long-running songs that ramble without editing; more We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions minus the history.
No song is quicker than four and half minutes and the majority go over eight as Stickles lets his inner Id loose by raggedly commenting on current society (“Real Talk”), his own insecurities (“Above The Bodega (Local Business)”) and for a lot of time, both of those things concurrently (“Number One (In New York)”).
After a cat’s meow the words arrive in torrents of verses. “Number One (In New York)” begins with only a piano as accompaniment before those layers of instrumentation quickly get added producing dramatic swells around the increasingly angst-filled words as Stickles struggles to stay relevant in society and afloat in the dramatic song itself.
A much more complete workout is the hip-swinging groove created in “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” as Stickles raspy voice conveys honest bruises with lyrics about not fooling anyone regarding his vices. The track uses glorious backing vocals in 50’s girl group style with a muted saxophone, tambourines and searching lyrics in a laid-back fashion which pushes it to the top of this release and one of the best overall songs Stickles has delivered in his career.
Tossing everything into the pot less successfully, “Real Talk” wonders/rails angst the world today in a party at ground zero fashion, while “Crass Tattoo” uses strings and waltzing barroom piano to showcase the vocals of Megg Farrell as Stickles opted for the creation of a pretty song while shouting out the female singers of Crass’s Penis Envy album where Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre took over for lead singer Steve Ignorant.
All of these are interesting excursions which fans of the band will love to sift through, but from a larger perspective, most are shambolic, dense and impenetrable to the fan just checking in and that is the way Stickles seems to want it. This is not a transitional album but an experimental one; can a young punk age, slow down and keep what makes him unique? He has not gone the 6-string and a voice route, but it is almost certainly in his future.
Editing has always been an issue with +@ and “Home Alone” is a chugging rocker about isolationism from child-to-adulthood that is more of a practice room jam than a full flushed out track, especially on an album with only eight songs, one cover. Tackling the cover is a different issue; Stickles turns “Like a Rolling Stone” inward using it as a personal masochistic screed to his past misdeeds rather than the accusatory outward lyrics of the original (lots of “I’s” replace “You”). The adjusted title “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone” is a neat trick but also highlights what an amazing song the original is, combining it with the loose recording style the overall album feels more like an EP with a cover dropped in then a full leap into a next step LP.
Stickles has always been a hard-working songwriter who digs ever inward to try to connect on a greater scale with a society he struggles to fit into. Whether it is tying the actual Civil War to teen angst on The Monitor or his struggle with an eating disorder on Local Business; Stickles fights with himself and the world as a whole to create that communal sense of being, if only for an instant.
When A Most Lamentable Tragedy wrapped up there was a feeling that +@ may have ended it’s run, now A Productive Cough does exactly what it’s title is defined as: it is messy, catches you off guard, can be tough to hear at times but always signals movement in a new positive direction, proving Stickles will never run out of things to say or ways to say them.