A Productive Cough
Merge Recordings · March 02, 2018
Anybody who knows Titus Andronicus knows about the ambition they pour into their albums. Songwriter Patrick Stickles made the band name known after releasing The Monitor, an album known for being a metaphor for the Civil War. Later on, they unveiled The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a 29 song rock opera about an unnamed man in an unnamed city dealing with manic depression. In their fifth album, A Productive Cough, Stickles draws it back and grounds his music in a more ballad focused layout. It evolved from punk screaming and hard-core guitar riffs into songs carried on the shoulders of background voices and a classic rock folk rock sound. It was a very purposeful effort to leave their punk roots behind and Stickles has stated his conscious effort for a more uplifting tone that would contrast from The Most Lamentable Tragedy. There is even a 9 minute Bob Dylan cover of “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone” (in case you were worried about a lack of ambition). Every song screams “Somehow I ended up in an empty bar at 3 am and there’s a Dave Matthews Band song on and now I’m singing with the bartender because why not? It’s New York.” It radiates a certain messiness and struggle that every urban dweller can relate to at some point.
The real star of this album was “Above the Bodega (Local Business)”. It brings a nice Stones vibe while talking about the relationship between the local deli guy and the customer. A Productive Cough, according to Stickles, comments on the realities of life in New York City. And with lines like “But I can’t keep a secret from the guy at the store downstairs” and “It’s a mystery to you but there’s a guy at the store that knows” comments on how the people at the stores we shop at know us better than even our closest loved ones. Having listened to it about ten times today, I would go so far as to say this is one of their best songs ever.
The most glaring flaw of this album is the length of it. It’s only 7 songs, yet the run time is 47 minutes. “Real Talk” is a nice catchy song that feels like it would be sung joyfully by a bunch of drunken sailors in a dingy bar 60 years ago. It does not need to be 7 minutes and 15 seconds long. Drunken sailors just do not have that kind of stamina. There are many songs out there longer than 6 minutes, but it makes sense to do so because any cuts would take away an important part of the song. An example of this would be the opening song, “Number One (in New York)” where the length contributes to chaotic and hopeless mood of the song. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most of the songs on this album. “Home Alone” has the repetitive lyrics of “Nobody’s home, I’m home alone,” seeming like more of a superfluous mistake than a deliberate choice. I could snip off the last 3 minutes of the song and it wouldn’t make any difference. I found this pattern in too many songs where I would jam to the first half of the song and by the second half I just want it to end already. Titus Andronicus, there can be too much of a good thing; trust me.
It’s a positive that the last song comes in at just under 5 minutes because at this point, I’m exhausted. Even though this album is supposed to be lighter, it feels heavy. Even when songs end on more uplifting notes, there’s a certain jadedness and despair in Stickles’ voice that’s hard to overlook. It’s not so much as a bad thing as just a missed goal. Titus Andronicus needs to relax. They produce their best work when they don’t try as hard. There isn’t any need to turn their backs on their previous stuff. They want so badly to leave the punk behind them, but there’s something punk the whole way through that they shouldn’t try to let go.