After only a glance at the second album by livewire New Jersey rock 'n' rollers Titus Andronicus, it might stand to reason that the band's frontman, Patrick Stickles, is more than a little obsessed with the Civil War: The album is named The Monitor, for the U.S. Navy ironclad that challenged the Confederacy's Virginia, also known as the Merrimac, at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862. Its cover is a photo of the ship's crew gathered around the camera like a street gang, arms folded and poses toughened.
And several of the song titles reference the era's most iconic phrases—"Four Score and Seven," "A More Perfect Union" and, of course, the barnstorming 14-minute closer, "The Battle of Hampton Roads." The Monitor was even released on March 9 this year, the 148th anniversary of the ship's draw with the Virginia, while the album's first single was released three days before Abraham Lincoln's 201st birthday.
But pacing around Red Hook, New York, a town in the state's Hudson Valley, on a Sunday afternoon before Titus Andronicus takes the stage at a high school benefit for the organization Men Can Stop Rape, Stickles seems casual to the point of dismissive about his conquest of history.
"I learned about it a little in school and stuff and always knew about Abraham Lincoln and that kind of shit, you know," he says. "But it's one of those things that gets so ubiquitous—like Abraham Lincoln being on the penny and everything—that a lot of that stuff just sort of gets to be white noise until you come to a place where you can accept it, sort of like the song 'American Pie.'"
About two years ago, Stickles, 24, began watching the Ken Burns series The Civil War, from which he pulled many of the quotes from period figureheads—presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, poet Walt Whitman—that serve as intros, outros and segues between tracks on The Monitor. His research didn't go much further, he admits.
That's the real victory of The Monitor. In the past, the press' talking points behind Titus Andronicus—named for another artifact of military history, the Roman general who Shakespeare appropriated for an early tragedy—have been frustratingly consistent: These boys party and curse a lot; Stickles is a smart songwriter who sings like a garage rock Bright Eyes; his band is a loud rock band that loves punk rock and fellow New Jersey-ite Bruce Springsteen, even if growing up in the state—the presiding theme of their catalog—sort of sucked.
Aside from the Civil War tidbits, The Monitor really isn't much different than the band's brilliant 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances. The guitars are a bit more focused, sure, allowing more room for Stickles' voice (lo and behold, he still sounds like Conor Oberst). A violin only adds to the ragtag E Street grandiosity.
On Grievances, an obstetrician offers the end of innocence, a mother is imagined as a murderer and Patrick Stickles is "dying slowly from Patrick Stickles Diseases." Here, the narrator apologizes to his mom for bringing his rowdy buddies over again, laments his failure to live up to the world's expectations and proclaims, "I've been called out, cuckolded, castrated, but I survived." The Monitor even picks up on the song titles from Grievances, adding the third installment of the "No Future" series and moving from the title "Titus Andronicus" to "Titus Andronicus Forever."
So the Civil War surroundings of this sophomore album are just that—surroundings, accessories meant largely to provide expanded context and content to an album loosely about a guy who still takes issue with New Jersey, moves to Boston and realizes that life's no better there, either. During the closer, when he's on his way home to Jersey, he admits, "I'm as much of an asshole as I've ever been."
But because most of the young Americans in Titus Andronicus' audience are at least vaguely familiar with the Civil War's storyline, it gives them something else to discuss. The Monitor, then, drops two doses of "concept album" bait into the water—the Jersey expatriate couched in Civil War history lessons—and a lot of people have bitten. A search of music blogs and Twitter feeds confirms that when people mention The Monitor, they consistently preface it with the concept album label.
"Although I barely passed United States History, a concept album about the civil war is definitely something new ... and I dig the whole vibe from beginning to end," writes the Web site in ALL caps. "I mean, concept be what it may, the themes are still angst and loneliness. It's hard to know whether you are on the front lines of the war or back in the present day dealing with what it's like to be bullied."
If only the Monitor the ironclad had a battle plan as good as that of The Monitor the album, American history might've moved a bit more swiftly, huh?
None of this is to suggest that The Monitor should be dismissed as a gimmick, or even that Stickles and his bandmates used history as some sort of a candy shell to get more people interested in its music. Hell, even if it is, the ploy makes little difference: The result remains a totally compelling, engrossing rock record, an hour-plus of glory and despondency, vaunted history and detailed reality.
"This is a war we can't win/ After 10,000 years, it's still us against them," sings Stickles at the start of "Four Score and Seven" just after The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn ends his reading of Walt Whitman's "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night." Even as an old, forlorn harmonica line pushes up to meet the ring of an electric guitar, Stickles isn't singing about the blue versus the gray.
No, he's singing about the idea that—from Boston to Bull Run, Glen Rock, N.J., to Gettysburg, Penn.—life can be sort of brutal for him, his friends and the kids he's about to sweat for in a high school in Red Hook. History buff or no, that's a use that's fair enough.