Titus Andronicus: Rebels Against the Orthodoxy of Punk

When Titus Andronicus released its conceptually ambitious triple album The Most Lamentable Tragedy on July 28, 2015, it became a landmark of modern punk. It also marked singer Patrick Stickles's thirtieth birthday and came out the day of the end of a five-night run of sold-out shows at New York City's longest-running DIY venue, Shea Stadium. Stickles used to work the door at Shea, and the band had its practice space there for several years, in addition to cutting its teeth as a band in the live setting at the venue, so this is a fitting tribute to the band's connection to its old stomping grounds and the fans who shared those nights. A documentation called [email protected] ROCK of those five nights is being released as a live digital album on July 29 and as an LP on August 5.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy itself was the band's attempt to give its fans the type of album that can be taken in as one takes in a novel. The cover art, designed by Nolen Stals with input by Stickles, was designed to reflect more of a literary aesthetic than a rock aesthetic. The album, like a novel or play, is structured in five acts. In writing the album, Stickles had in mind a larger framework that guided the songwriting; the songs fit the mood of the various periods in the narrative. The story is a bit of a hero's journey from innocence to experience, of challenging one's notions of the world and the self, and of transformation and personal redemption. It is a work of personal mythology in the vein of a James Joyce novel or Hüsker Dü's punk epic Zen Arcade. Certainly the work can be enjoyed as a great punk-rock album in the broad sense of what punk can be, although a triple album is the sort of thing one might expect more from a self-indulgent progressive rock outfit.

“If making a sort of overblown, bombastic — some might say pretentious — sort of statement like our last album or Zen Arcade, in a way, that's sort of the punkest thing you can do, because it's an act of rebellion against the orthodoxy of supposed punk rock,” Stickles says.

And the album itself doesn't feel staid or unnecessarily overblown. It has the bombast and the melancholy that has been part of much punk across decades and the music serves as an outlet for the acute feelings within demanding expression. There is a cover on the record, “I Lost My Mind (DJ),” by Daniel Johnston, an artist who resonates with Stickles's own experience with manic depression — which Stickles himself has been able to convey in a meaningful way to people who, even if they don't actually suffer from manic depression, relate to strongly because of the honesty of his words. Stickles seems to have a pragmatic view of the ongoing personal struggle.

“It's an endless process of figuring out how to co-exist peacefully with your own mind. Writing this rock opera was an attempt to address a lot of those things and exorcise a lot of those demons. If maybe I thought at one point that when I got this rock opera out of me that that would be the end of my struggling, I gave up that fantasy a good little while ago. It's never over," he says.

"I know this much: Keeping those things bottled up and making them your little secret definitely doesn't help, and it's much better to get it out in the open and express yourself or validate yourself about it. I consider myself very [fortunate] to have the platform that I do to discuss these things. It's very helpful for me, and I know that a lot of people out there go through the same stuff. [Even] though I'm still working on achieving some stable equilibrium and probably will be working on it forever, my work as an artist gives me a lot of opportunities to work through that stuff and get support about it, and give a little bit of support and validation to people who need it.”

Titus Andronicus with La Sera and The Knew, 7 p.m. doors, Tuesday, May 17, at the Marquis Theater, 303-487-0111.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.