Titus Andronicus - Local Business (2012)
“Okay I think by now we’ve established / everything is inherently worthless”
With those opening words from “Ecce Homo,” thus begins Local Business, the highly anticipated third LP from New Jersey punks Titus Andronicus. It’s a kicker of an opening line, and one that should resonate with anyone who has followed the band over the past five years. This is, after all, a band that named the closing track on their first LP after Albert Camus, and that proudly proclaimed on 2010’s The Monitor that “nothing means anything anymore.” And yet, despite the existential leanings of frontman Patrick Stickles’ lyrical pen, Titus Andronicus’ music has often flown flagrantly in the face of nihilist ideology. The band’s first two records, the previously mentioned album-of-the-decade contender The Monitor and its older, lo-fi cousin The Airing Of Grievances, were thoroughly life-affirming albums at heart. By sheer virtue of their conceptual depth, unbridled ambition, and fully-realized orchestration, they suggested the possibility of transcendence from the meaningless void of existence that Stickles’ lyrics described.
Now, with Local Business, that possibility has dissipated into the same void from whence it came. On the first listen, that opening line seems like a sarcastic jab at the band’s trademark lyrical aesthetic, which I don’t doubt was Stickles’ intention. By the end of the record, however, it feels more like an admission of defeat. This is not for a lack of capability, but it does seem to be due to a lack of effort. For a record by a band in their creative and commercial prime, Local Business feels frustratingly hollow and undeveloped, particularly on a musical level. From the opening one-two punch of “Ecce Homo” and “Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter” to the three-song suite that surrounds the eight minute epic “My Eating Disorder,” Local Business retains the compositional depth that the band has become great at, but without the instrumental flourishes, shoegaze-influenced production elements, or pace-keeping samples that made their past two records great. In other words, on a musical level at least, Local Business is a straightforward rock album.
Titus Andronicus’ intentions are understandable, given their circumstances. Since 2010, the band has lost members including their violin player/guitarist Amy Klein, who brought a much-needed female energy and accomplished musicianship to their brash and boyish sound. Now that they’re gone, the album feels much like what one might expect five post-adolescent men with guitars to sound like if you put them in a room, sans any semblance of grit. This approach works if you view Titus Andronicus among the lineage of no-bullshit guitar bands like The Replacements and The Hold Steady, but if you’re like me and you appreciated Titus Andronicus’ occasionally pretentious musical tendencies, this record will let you down. And yet, precisely because of how ambitious their previous material was, the decision to work in a simpler musical format is understandable, if not entirely forgivable.
The larger issue is the production on the record. Local Business sounds far too clean and scrubbed-down to correlate sonically with the populist lyrical themes that Stickles plays with. On an aesthetic level, Local Business feels like a fancy new chain that just opened up in your town and is marketing itself to people who shop at real local stores. In the record’s worst moments, the souped-up production contrasts with the downgraded musical ambition, making Local Business seem like a high cost, low value investment. And yet, at its best, the lack of noisy guitars or lo-fi percussion accentuates the album’s catchiness. The third track “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood Of Detritus,” which was released in demo form on Titus Andronicus’ “mixtape” earlier this year, benefits the most from this; its Cock Sparrer-reminiscent chug simply begs to be shouted along with.
The record’s greatest strong suit are the lyrics, which is why I knew I had to withhold my official judgement until my copy of the record arrived with a lyric sheet. Free from the conceptual rigidity of The Monitor, Stickles experiments more as a writer on Local Business, opening up about his struggle with Selective Eating on “My Eating Disorder” and reaching a near-hip hop level of verbosity and vocal dexterity on “Ecce Homo.” His rhetorical ability is in top form, and he manages to spit potent one-liners on nearly every song. Occasionally, he dips into that Oberstian overshare territory, snarkily stating that his “authentic self was aborted at the age of four” on “Hot Deuce” and cringingly admitting that he’s been a “drug addict since single digits” on “My Eating Disorder.” Elsewhere, he’s lambasting himself and his entire lyrical style. “I heard them say the white man created existential angst when he ran out of other problems,” Stickles admits on the opening track. All of it is delivered through a comfortable sheen of self-awareness; he never lets himself be truly vulnerable as a writer, even when he’s singing about struggling with an eating disorder or feeling insignificant after moving to New York on “In A Big City.”
Local Business comes to a head on “In A Small Body,” a mid-tempo song towards the end of the album that, in a remarkably understated way, makes a strong case for the record’s best track. Stickles is completely in command from the powerful opening line (“Don’t tell me I was born free / that joke has been old since high school”) through a tempo change that welcomes insider lyrical references to The Monitor and Titus’ pals Diarrhea Planet. It also bears one line that distills the crux of Stickles’ existential issues down to a thesis — “What do you know about being no sort of slave? I know some kids who’d kill for this kind of cage,” he sings to himself in his impassioned, nasal sneer. This reserved self-criticism, coupled with Owen Pallett’s gorgeous string arrangement, makes “In A Small Body” a rare moment of greatness on the otherwise simply solid record. It suggests a direction that Titus Andronicus could have explored more on this album, and that perhaps they will explore again.
Local Business is very frustrating because, despite its glaring flaws, pointless joke songs (“I Am The Electric Man”), and one-line filler tracks, it’s still a very good record that I can’t help but feel compelled to listen to near-constantly. I’m biased because The Monitor means more to me than just about any other album, but part of me also really wanted to hate this record simply for not being like its predecessor. Ultimately, I have to reconcile the way I feel about Local Business on a primal level. It’s simply, annoyingly solid, but by no means should it be anyone’s entry point into Titus Andronicus’ otherwise near-perfect body of work.
Key Tracks: “Ecce Homo”, “My Eating Disorder”, “In A Small Body”
Local Business is available for purchase now from XL Recordings.