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Titus Andronicus’ “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” Reviewed

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If you’ve been reading the reviews of, and Patrick Stickles interviews about, The Most Lamentable Tragedy Of Titus Andronicus, you might be somewhat on the baffled side,  so let me dumb it down. It is the story of “Our Hero” who, after a childhood mental breakdown, has grown up to be a manic depressive, After one particularly harrowing experience he meets his double “Lookalike” –a drug addicted mess of a man and  during a past life regression “Our Hero” meets his true love in a dream. But the dream doesn’t last and he commits suicide only to stabilize himself and  to wake again at the one harrowing experience in a constant endless night loop. It is “Dead Of Night” -a recurring waking nightmare. The music and the lyric match the mood swings of the manic depression, in a  a transmogrification of thought to sound: a 29 song, 93 minute rock and roll expression of the most intense emotions ever.

But it isn’t the story of Patrick’s breakdown, it is about emotions, mental problems, but they are floating in space, they aren’t anchored in his breakdown, it isn’t TMZ and Patrick, who is much more private than he appears to be, isn’t playing spot the downfall.

I’ve already written about The Most Lamentable five times, so check the reviews out here, if you want details I’m gonna pass on for this final review. Because I have thought my way through it and found myself somewhere else, it seems to be there is much more that a doubling going .Look at it this way: Patrick wrote it, Titus Andronicus (known as +@ from now on) performed it, Our Hero narrated it, The Lookalike appears in it and a past life show a way out not taken and finally a denial of the inevitable ending occurs and we begin again…  and that’s just want I have noticed.

So there you have the structure: it isn’t Patrick the rock star, or Local Business maverick, or even businessman, or the guy who wouldn’t listen for a moment to anything XL records said and probably isn’t listening to Merge Records either. It isn’t Patrick the son and lover, the could’ve been teacher, the son to a father and brother to a soldier: Patrick isn’t taking “Our Hero” through the looking glass, but rather, he is presenting “Our Hero” as an “is he isn’t he” narrator and, I might add, if “Our Hero” is really a suicidal, manic depressive, he is not a particularly reliable narrator, either.

Perhaps the narrator is there to be a proforma  mental break down, Patrick draws us into the narrative by our rubber necking celebrity gawking real dope wanna knowing and uses it to lead us to the ebb and flow of insanity. When Patrick writes a song about not wanting to get out of bed, and then performs an interview on  how only a +@ tour got him out of bed, we are as close to the rockstar as when he is stamping our hand at the door of Shea Stadium, indeed we are closer. But we aren’t there: and when Stickles uses a game of spot the reference through years of albums and mountains of words, more important than the connection inside the song is the connection outside the song. for sure, if you think this is his memoir, wait for his memoir, but, with next to no inside knowledge, I bet the rent it isn’t.

It might sound like heresy but the primary duty of an artist is to be entertaining and to be honest what great artist isn’t entertaining? Indeed, the reason Plato is greater than Aristotle is because he is so damn entertaining. All the major religions, try reading the Koran with boiling vats filled with infidels flesh, are hugely entertaining. So what is happening here is a sort “Pale Fire” type construct with notes on Genius which may nor not be accurate, heading you off in a thousand different directions, as well as interview after interview, so full of information it is like a 29 song suite can’t contain it. Patrick actually has managed to move +@’s album out of the record and into other places. It lives away from the music, I mean far away from the music. And perhaps, certainly the notes for “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” -which doubles as a song sang simultaneously by Our Hero and the Lookalike, may leave you thinking something here is not what it means to be.

It also leaves you wondering about what it means to be entertained, to have fun, and how something which works like a multi media jigsaw puzzle on mental illness can, or is, or even should be, fun. But, first, one man’s fun is another man’s Avicii, it depends how you approach it: if you enjoy thinking through things, this is a thrilling experience by a band that has gained your trust. If you can’t hear it at first +@ have been too good for too long not to have you bear faith that it will be worth it, and so you listen again and again.

Fun is also music, so let’s put the story to the side because while narrative is fun it isn’t why we’re here. We are here for music. And what we get on the rock opera, is a towering achievement but also a flawed achievement. At its pinnacle are two of Patrick’s greatest songs, “Dimed Out” and “Fatal Flaw” and like so many of +@ greatest moments it is where a band meets a groove. This present incarnation of +@ have been together since 2010, and it is hardly a shocker they’ve been covering Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are back In Town” because now, like the E Street Band or the Stones, or the Heartbreakers, or Bad Brains, they are brothers in sound. If you play together so long and so hard, you get to that mythic place called tightness, which really means that the band performs like one instrument With +@, the songs scruffiness, edgy DIY, scrawled vocals and clambering guitars is a wrecking rollicking soundtrack to well, to fun, but it is also a disciplined attempt. Punk had anarchy in its blood -but that was in 1977, times change. These two songs, from the Lookalikes point of view,  are brutally brilliant, upended rock and roll masterpieces. Singalongs as great as rock’s greatest moments (really; it’ a different age so I can’t point to it and point to “Jumping Jack Flash” without you think I’m crazy, but  these songs aren’t that far off), I know I’ve mention Nate Ruess’ words about “Dimed Out” a number of time, and I know I probably love Nate’s band, funnily enough called Fun., more than most, but I can so hear the connection between pop music, rock, Broadway, just the thrill and joy of everything in these two songs not dissimilar to what Nate has attempted. Like “Titus Andronicus” and “…And Ever”, these are songs that are bigger (as is fun’s “We Are Young” for that matter) than you can imagine. They are the sort of songs where you want to stop people in the street and say don’t listen to that, listen to this. The songs themselves, “Dimed Out” the manic high of artistic creation as sung by the Lookalike,  being Dimed Out refers to putting your amplifier as loud as it can go (kinda -read it for yourself here) , and “Fatal Flaw”, the Lookalike scoring drugs and his “Fatal Flaw” -he is  a drug addict though maybe not (the very next song his “Fatal Flaw” is  falling in love -aka the unreliable narrator).

These two songs are such manic masterpieces, one on each CD in a manner of speaking  (these are 90s kids after all) it wins +@ a great deal of time to unfold the album. Released as the first two tracks off the album, it buys the band time and it buys them patience and oodles of good will. And they spend it. By my reckoning there are another four good to great manic tracks, and the two “No Future” songs, Part V is the conclusion of a life  while I don’t believe Patrick saw the endless sleep begun with the “Patrick Stickles disease”, he certainly saw it on this depressive downer (only to deny it on the next song). There are three covers, with only one a real goodie, three  pieces of ambient electronic sound all to do with the sleeping state and a loop the album round again, and some down numbers, though no leveling out songs. Finally, two tracks of silence (one cut from over seven minutes to a little over a minute).

Like all albums you love, it has its own internal clock. For me, it starts not with the ambient intro but the following powerhouses for five straight songs, from being knocked awake to knocked asleep, it is a day in the life. And then the next ambient sound is followed like “Lookalike” kicking the story into gear (in writing terms: we’ve had the theses, a guy is in the throws of a break down, and then we are getting the antitheses, he meets his lookalike, synthesis, he  finds a new love and has a final breakdown and new thesis the new thesis but he decides life is worth lving), and the energy level starts and dimes out on “Dimed Out” before “More Perfect Union” crashes and burns at the intermission. The first half has no flaws at least in the sense that you can’t help feeling it is exactly what +@ wants it to be.

The second half is trickier and not perfect, the reason is because the love story that takes up a number of tracks isn’t clear enough: perhaps I am being selfish or stupid, but I don’t quite understand, even within the  laws Stickles has set up to govern himself on the album, how “Please”, “Come On, Siobhan” (the only consciously BIG SONG, that doesn’t work for me on the album), and “A Pair Of Blue Eyes” -Patrick’s revenge on Spider, I assume, don’t hang together quite as either love or story, or exception or dream state. The three song love set is preceded by a three song seduction set which works perfectly and culminates  in one of the great songs of the 2010s, “Fatal Flaw”.

From there Our Hero and the album crashes and burns. Most Lamentable was never easy listening, but here it is like a dark shroud comes over everything till we reach the death scene, the gorgeous and pained “No Future V”, a denial denied by “Stable Boy” where reasons to live must be applied. And with “A Moral” back to the beginning.

So if you are listening to the album,  “Stable Boy” with its chintzy organ and… this: “The cassette recorder, made by Califone, is the very same machine which recorded the first verse of “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ,” the first song on The Airing of Grievances, +@’s first LP.”, is very moving, it doesn’t take the exit we’d assumed, but it embraces the importance of the finite,  in the now and even if not for Our Hero, at least for those he loves… I think. But out of context it is tough going. A song like “Stable Boy isn’t really a good listen, perhaps it has too much work to do, and as the final words on the album, “never, no, never, no, never no sleeping forever” are a wonderful singalong, and also a promise from Patrick that he has stared into the abyss and it stared right back, who will sing it?  Everybody is shouting “Your life is over”.  I just wish the song  sang better.

It feels like a fatal flaw, though since, appearances not withstanding, we know he makes it out alive, I guess it is an unfatal flaw. This is a great album, worth the time I spent digging into it, and even so (I wasn’t joking when I called my opinion the most lamentable review) I don’t have that firm a handle. But it is also flawed. I don’t wish it was shorter and I don’t wish it was better. Having heard it a great deal over two weeks, I enjoy the way songs flow, and I enjoy the lyrics. I wish some portions were a little stronger, especially the love story, but I love the album. It is a real achievement, an artistic highlight of the 2010s. It repays close attention with strange insights. Really, it is the musical “Pale Fire” -an extended mind game but with a steely and real purpose behind it. +@ are playing with you but for a real reason.

I mean, I love it. It’s fun.

Grade: A

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