This is the sort of album that Titus Andronicus was going to make sooner or later, and it was more than worth the wait.
For years, Titus Andronicus has been synonymous with high concepts and long, sprawling epics, which is strange for a band that owes as many debts to punk and hardcore as they do to classic rock. Yet each album comes with a certain concept or defining characteristic. They’ve done the concept album (The Monitor); they’ve done the sprawling double album (The Most Lamentable Tragedy); they’ve even done the “sonic departure” album with last year’s A Productive Cough. Thus, it’s kind of surprising that An Obelisk doesn’t come with any sort of similar baggage at all. For their sixth album, Titus Andronicus chose to keep it relatively simple, and the result is perhaps the best thing they’ve done in years.
At 38 minutes, An Obelisk speeds by at a pretty brisk pace. The band opts to start in high gear with “Just Like Ringing a Bell,” and the pace never really lets up from there. Patrick Stickles’ voice, tempered and plaintive on the previous album, is a consistent, guttural howl from the first lyric, and when one takes a look at what he’s singing, it’s not hard to see why. Stickles’ anger and disgust with the world is palpable on An Obelisk, and he takes aim at a range of targets including the police (“On the Street”), wider society (“Tumult Around the World”) and the very industry he works in (“Bell,” whose lyrics include a condemnation of record companies “making a dirty fortune selling something that’s barely working/ An inferior version of rock and roll.”) The closest we get to a moment of calm is “My Body and Me,” and even that slowly boils over into a din of fury turned inward. Given Stickles’ penchant for both disguising his personal demons behind high metaphors and dragging out his insecurities over 10-minute epics, the short bursts of rage that make up An Obelisk are both a surprising turn and a welcome one.
It helps, too, that Titus Andronicus has never sounded as good as a band as they do here. Often, their approach to the studio seems to be to either attempt to recreate the raucous energy of their live shows or to move away from that as much as possible. Under the purview of Bob Mould, though, they admirably split the difference. The performances are loud, brash and energetic, but the live sloppiness is buffed away, resulting in something that is polished enough to be a gripping, fun listen. Their ramshackle charm still pops up when it needs to (one imagines that “Tumult Around the World” would sound a little too much like an Elvis Costello tribute were it not being played by this band with this producer), but otherwise, An Obelisk has a clean sound that comes across as kind of effortless.
It’s possible that one could hear An Obelisk as a reaction to the muted response to A Productive Cough, though Stickles has denied that this was the case. However, to think that would be missing the point a little bit. An Obelisk is the sort of album that was always in the DNA of Titus Andronicus, the kind of thing that would pop up briefly in the middle of the sprawl of the band’s previous work. This was the sort of album that Titus Andronicus were going to make sooner or later, and it was more than worth the wait.