Let it never be said that Patrick Stickles doesn’t try hard enough.
Let it never be said that Patrick Stickles doesn’t try hard enough. The singer/guitarist has been the lone constant behind Titus Andronicus for almost ten years now, and the songs he writes and performs require an amount of emotional investment on the part of the listener that is equal to Stickles’ own emotional investment. If you’ve ever heard a Titus Andronicus song, you’ll know that that’s asking for a lot; at his finest, Stickles is a nihilistic Bruce Springsteen, a man who believes in the power of rock ‘n’ roll with Gen Y despondency taking the place of Baby Boomer positivity. And the guy can only think in grand gestures, like a concept album that equates his personal turmoil loosely with the American Civil War and this, a 29-song rock opera. The Most Lamentable Tragedy strives to impact through sheer grandiosity; the album wants to overwhelm you.
The concept of The Most Lamentable Tragedy – which Stickles has described as being based on Nietzsche and Kay Redfield Jamison with elements of science fiction – suffers the same fate as most other concept albums in that the concept falls apart very quickly. What we’re left with instead is a collection of songs all loosely connected by Stickles’ emotional turmoil. It seems as if Stickles has opened up his brain and dumped everything out on The Most Lamentable Tragedy, even as he alternately disguises his pain in triumphant rock anthems and breakneck punk spit-takes. For a concept album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is decidedly unpretentious, both in its subject matter and in the sort of songs that Stickles has composed here.
The problem with a flimsy concept for a concept album, though, is that the connecting filler tracks just seem even more like filler, and The Most Lamentable Tragedy has an absurd number of throwaway songs. Stickles seems to be following in the path of Robert Pollard here, letting every idea he has run its course before terminating them, even if it only results in a 10-second song. One song is actually labeled “Filler,” so at least Stickles seems to have a sense of humor. Still, while chants praising the sun and an “[intermission]” where literally nothing happens can be an amusing novelty, it doesn’t offer much in terms of musical reward, especially with a concept this flimsy.
While The Most Lamentable Tragedy may not work as a rock opera, it’s still a Titus Andronicus album, and it succeeds at being that quite well. When he’s on, Stickles writes passionate, punk-infused rock ‘n’ roll better than anyone else, and TMLT contains some of his finest compositions to date. Springsteen remains a touchstone for the band, as does Celtic punk (in the most overt tribute to Irish trad-punk yet, Stickles includes a cover of The Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes.”), but producer Kevin McMahon’s deft touch brings out shades of pop-punk in “No Future Triumphant,” the fourth of an ongoing series of songs that share the “No Future” title. On “Fired Up,” strings enter the picture and manage to not make the song overblown or maudlin; instead, they add a triumphant dimension to the song. “Come On, Siobahn” works even better, as the violin adds a jaunty urgency that, at times, resembles a less-overplayed sister song to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen.”
Triumph is an important feeling to Patrick Stickles; he’s striven for years to find the joy and bliss in the most dire of circumstances. He never seems to quit trying, even when he bites off a little more than he’s capable of chewing. That’s sort of the case here with The Most Lamentable Tragedy: it’s not the classic that Stickles seems to think it is, but there’s some damn fine rock songs in here. Sometimes, that’s all you need to lift your spirits.