Growing up in New Jersey, Titus Andronicus leader Patrick Stickles imagined rock offered a possibility for a kind of redemption. Raised in Bruce Springsteen country, he drank deep of the myth of beautiful losers who struggle and fail heroically.
This recurring theme reaches its pinnacle on the indie rockers’ fourth album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge Records, July 2015), which Stickles described as a largely autobiographical effort.
“It’s a representation of my experiences,” he said. “People maybe will be a little confused because it all sounds so triumphant and I’m talking so loud, they might think this is a heroic triumphant story. It’s not. It only sounds triumphant because that’s the only nobility of our race—the ability to revel in our constant failure.”
The 29-song, 92-minute release is emblematic of the band’s great ambition. Their wild, rollicking 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman Unlimited Records), features a rambunctious punk roar, varied instrumentation and a heady, post-modern lyrical blend of pop culture references. These range from the Seinfeld-biting title to Cormac McCarthy, Hunter S. Thompson and include a song dedicated to French existentialist Albert Camus.
Their second album, 2010’s The Monitor (XL Recordings), used the American Civil War to examine our political system, while Stickles has described 2012’s Local Business (XL) as an album of fight songs about bad ideas and worse intentions. The idea was the cure him of those tendencies by flagellating those songs on tour for a couple years.
“It got to be an exorcism,” Stickles said, adding that he found it very healthy.
“I go back and look at something I had written … and see it is really me trying to instruct myself,” he said. “Maybe the act of creating art creates some emotional camouflage for yourself, it creates a certain distance from it where you can say things in a song and even say them to hundreds of people at a time—total strangers—but not your family. It’s to a tune and it’s a show, it’s a put on: It’s show business.”
With Most Lamentable Tragedy, Stickles turns the spotlight on the provocateur—himself—and examines not just his own culpability in his hardships, but also his struggles with mental health.
While Stickles would be the first to say he’s not well, he chafes at the medical community’s self-assured diagnoses. He also notes how it enables bad behavior.
“The human brain remains a huge mystery and I think these scientists are very very arrogant in the way they run around saying how much they understand it,” he said.
“I don’t believe in this classification stuff,” he added. “When I act like an asshole, as I sometimes do, is this my mental illness at work or is it just because I’m a regular old asshole? Are assholes inherently mentally ill? Is being an asshole a mental illness?”
All this folds into the rock 'n' roll tradition—and indie rock tradition, in particular—of the heroic loser. Everyone loves a story in which the protagonist is worse off than themselves.
“They want to relate to somebody who says, 'Even though I’m super-fuckup, I’m still basically a hero because this is what all the fuckups in the audience are dying to believe,'” Stickles said. “'I’m worth something. I’ve made mistakes and I’m a piece of shit perhaps, but look at this piece of shit up here, he’s done way worst shit than I did but he’s being happily applauded. There must be some beauty in all this struggling and suffering.'
“That’s the point of the exercise,” he added, “but it’s very selfish in a very cagey way to get away with being a fuckup all your life, selling it to people like it’s awesome. Nice work if you can get it.”
By the time the album reaches its finale with, “A Moral,” Stickles has turned this excuse on its head. At the end, the album is an ode to self-destruction with boisterous pomp disguising a simple, sobering truth.
“You can piss and moan all you want about how short your end of the stick was, but at the end of the day nobody got the long end of the stick, really,” he said. “Everybody out here is in the same leaky boat. Ultimately your bullshit is your bullshit. Maybe life’s been unfair but that doesn’t mean you get to be a jerk, basically. That’s the moral of the story.”
For Stickles, who’s now older than 30, this album feels like a closing chapter. While he doesn’t know where he goes from here, he does know a couple things.
“It could only get less self-obsessed from here,” he said. “It’s going to be less belabored and a helluva lot shorter. You have my number, I’m going to make you my sponsor—if you hear I’m making another double album I want you to call me and remind me of this conversation.”