A Productive Cough is an impressively daring gambit.
For some fans, Titus Andronicus’ newest album will be seen as a fairly drastic shift in tone in style. Long associated with a brand of breakneck, ramshackle punk that owed as much to Springsteen and Petty as it did to early hardcore singles. Songwriter Patrick Stickles—the only consistent member of the band over its history—married classic rock ambition with punk vitality in a way that made even his most personal work seem grand in scale. That grandiosity is really all that’s left on A Productive Cough. Otherwise, Stickles appears to have left his punk-rock past behind in favor of something more meditative and patient.
For all of his stated love of punk and hardcore (Cough even features a song called “Crass Tattoo”), Stickles’ heart has belonged to rock ‘n’ roll in its purest, pre-punk sense. That barnstorming rock sensibility has always been there in some capacity, but Cough is the first time that Stickles has dedicated a whole album to exploring this side of his music. Lead single “Number One (In New York)” is a marked departure, a song that builds slowly and doesn’t provide explosive catharsis at the end. Instead of offering brief bursts of anger and frustration, Stickles presents a general malaise as the song slowly turns from railing against the ills of the world to dissatisfied self-examination. That runs through the rest of A Productive Cough as Stickles turns his focus inward for some reflection that veers ever so closely to self-loathing.
In the process of turning his lyrical gaze inward in a more considered sense, Stickles has also morphed his band into an expansive, somewhat jammy rock band that carefully balances musical pyrotechnics with being a vehicle for a singer-songwriter. The ramshackle charm of the band is still very much there, but here it more resembles Crazy Horse than it does the Pogues. At times, the band seems to lack a bit of consistency, preferring instead to empty the kitchen sink and try out anything and everything. “Crass Tattoo” is a mournful ballad performed by Megg Farrell, and “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” bears a striking resemblance to the late-night piano vamps from Transformer-era Lou Reed. Strangest of all is “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone,” which is not a spoof of Bob Dylan’s classic but a fairly straightforward reinterpretation of the song with its pronouns switched. Again, it highlights an inward turn for Stickles as a performer, but it also underscores how strange and somewhat confusing of an album A Productive Cough can be.
In a sense, A Productive Cough isn’t as much of a shock as one would have anticipated. These songs, though different from the past output of Titus Andronicus, are still very much tied to the band’s initial musical ethos, and given how madly committed Stickles can be to a given idea (he’s already made two concept albums), this shift is one that isn’t all that unexpected in the grand scheme of things. Still, even if it doesn’t pay off in the way that some of the best Titus Andronicus material does, A Productive Cough is an impressively daring gambit from an artist too restless to keep churning out the same old crap each time out.