Talk, talk, talk all Patrick Stickles does is talk. On Ecce Homo, the first song from the new album by his band Titus Andronicus, hes talking about himself, and its not pretty.
Ive spread my vile seed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, he sings in the effective, whiny rasp thats become his trademark. Now Im begging you on my knees, please dont make me get down and sniff it.
Ecce Homo is one part of the bigger story on Local Business (XL), the third album from this band, which has quickly become one of the most exciting and brainiest young punk acts in the country. Its also a far more distilled album than its predecessor, The Monitor, from 2010, which was a daring and complex concept album about war among other things, an impressive leap in scale and ambition for a band that had first made a mark with far terser songs.
But in many ways Local Business is an album about hating what youve become. On Ecce Homo, Stickles an ardent anti-consumerist, at least in verse continues, Yes, its us against them again, smashing the system into the dirt/Now we gobble brown M&Ms and put the whole thing onto a T-shirt.
Local Business boils down to erudite bar rock, although with Stickles behind the wheel he is the bands constant while members come and go around him genre is a distant second to words. On record, at least, it can seem as if every other part of this band is in service to Stickles. (Thats less true during live shows, in which the band makes a broad, convincing racket.)
On The Monitor, all of those parts were working in intricate tandem.
A different version of growth for this band might have meant disappearing farther down that wormhole, but the often great Local Business is closer in spirit to this bands debut, The Airing of Grievances, from 2008, and perhaps a reclamation of balance.
And just because the songs are more linear, that doesnt mean that at times they dont have to be gnawed at. My Eating Disorder is a harrowing story of hiding behind addiction: Now they pass me from hand to hand/Pharmacist to Marlboro Man/Back to pharmacist again, too late. And Upon Viewing Oregons Landscape With the Floor of Detritus is about confronting death head-on, and crumpling.
Seemingly no one loathes the scene he finds himself immersed in more than Stickles. On In a Big City, he sneers, I grew up on one side of the river, I was a disturbed, dangerous drifter/Moved over to the other side of the river, now Im a drop in a deluge of hipsters.
On In a Small Body, he sounds like someone who wants only to escape or to annul his fame: What you know about being no sort of slave?/I know some kids whod kill for this kind of cage.
The last indie rock singer to have created such a cult of personality based on his words was probably Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes, whose confessional prose poems were one of the signature sounds of the 2000s. At times, Stickles sounds like Oberst when he was singing in his punkish side project Desaparecidos.
And when Stickles backs away from the narrative somewhat, there are moments in which Titus Andronicus sounds more in line with, say, the Gaslight Anthem, another New Jersey somewhat-punk band, although one with a more focused sense of songcraft and storytelling, and one less apt to ramble than Titus Andronicus has been.
Occasionally listening to Titus Andronicus can feel like a war between parsing Stickles and giving oneself over to the band, which is steady and decisive even when he isnt. But Stickles comes up for air on two shorter tracks here.
One, Food Fight! is a comedic 71-second interlude that feels like an overly self-aware puncture in this bands balloon of seriousness (or perhaps its craven attempt at selling a song to be used in a fast-food commercial).
The other, though, feels more meaningful. Its called Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO), and it sits dead center on the album. For just over two minutes, Stickles works over the phrase Im going insane a few dozen different ways.
The music is looser, somewhere between literalist Ramones punk and blowzy 1970s arena rock, as if the band, finally untethered from the stresses of narrative, is enjoying itself. And while Stickles may not be saying much from a word-count perspective, hes certainly still talking, and he certainly has a lot to say.