Ambition can bite you in the ass, especially if you’re a young band. Record a near-perfect album too early in your career, and risk having everything you produce thereafter, no matter its merit, fall short in the minds of critics and fans. New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus learned this lesson the hard way, after releasing the decade’s greatest punk record, 2010’s The Monitor, a cerebral concept album about, loosely, the American Civil War.
Though the band’s next two albums skirted brilliance, they each received tepid receptions, much to the annoyance of bandleader, and part-time Shea Stadium ticket-tearer, Patrick Stickles, the self-proclaimed greatest lyricists in New York.
Now, with A Productive Cough, its fifth long player, the band makes clear that it’s uninterested in topping its past efforts and has dropped the fuzzed-out Springsteen-inspired anthems that were once its stock-in-trade. Opening track “Number One (In New York)” is an eight-minute meandering piano ballad, followed by the horn-heavy “Real Talk,” an experiment in New Orleans’ beer-hall blues. In the standout “Above the Bodega (Local Business),” Stickles croons about his inability to hide his, uh, purchasing habits from the guy at the store downstairs, as background vocalists coo harmonies cribbed almost straight from Back to Mono.
Though these songs each signal a departure for the group, a shambolic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” provides the greatest clue into Stickles’s ambitions. Like Dylan, he seems to have learned that it is easier, and perhaps more satisfying, to blow up his sound and begin fresh instead of living in his shadow. Some critics may scoff at the results, wanting a return to form, and granted, A Productive Cough is no masterpiece.
But by turning down the distortion and exploring new (albeit old) sounds, Titus has proved that its ambitions have yet to stall, which is more than what many of their early-aught indie-rock peers can say. One can only hope that Stickles and Co., now in their midlife as a band, can remain as willing to reconstruct their sound as when they were still just a few scruffy kids from across the river.