Gordon: Re-enacting the Civil War with Titus Andronicus

Jeremy Gordon

What’s the deal with New Jersey? Living there can’t be worse than growing up in any other deadbeat American suburb, and writing sad songs about your childhood has always been a popular trope for rock bands, but it seems like bands from the Garden State (Springsteen, Thursday, The Gaslight Anthem, etc.) write specifically about Jersey-the highways, the hangouts, the divorce rate-rather than generalizing the experience for everyone to enjoy.

That didn’t matter much when Titus Andronicus (billed proudly as Titus Andronicus from New Jersey, of course) played the Bottom Lounge on Wednesday night in support of their excellent sophomore effort “The Monitor,” a concept album about the Civil War. It also parallels lead singer/guitarist Patrick Stickles’ move to Boston from Jersey, and his subsequent realization that he “never should have left New Jersey,” as he sings in a number of the album’s songs. But Stickles didn’t wait long to tell the packed Chicago crowd that “New Jersey is the best,” which received a hearty round of boos-one concertgoer even yelled “Shut the (expletive) up and rock!”-so consider this the New Jersey Awareness Tour of 2010.

The band opened with “A More Perfect Union,” a swelling, noisy anthem about Stickles’ initial move to Boston (and initial pining for Jersey, of course) mixed with some lyrics about Jefferson Davis and allusions to “The Dark Knight” and Bruce Springsteen. There’s a lot of Springsteen to be found, but it’s as if his songs serve as metaphors for the self-loathing instead of real America. Stickles, like The Boss, screams until he’s blue-his voice is an ugly grate, like vocal chords scraped raw by a scalpel-but he’s painfully self-conscious and self-aware, rather than joyfully blind of his identity issues. Springsteen never saw the problem with being a multi-millionaire and a friend to the working man, but Stickles seeks to both elevate and mock his Jersey experience-middle class, white, educated, millennial, whatever you want to call it. The self-deprecation is both exhilarating and sad when he sings, “You will always be a loser” over and over again in “No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future,” another great track off “The Monitor.”

Of course, this didn’t matter to most of the crowd, who jumped and moshed and pumped their fists like there was no tomorrow. An appreciative (or drunk?) Stickles remarked how people in the front were having way more fun-duh, it’s an indie rock concert!-but then invited the people in the back to enjoy themselves more (they didn’t really, but it was a good attempt). Titus Andronicus may write overly literate, slightly hyperbolic lyrics about being unsatisfied, but it’s more about the feeling than the details. Being from Jersey isn’t supposed to be intellectually interesting-it’s supposed to be depressing, and the songs find solidarity in being screamed, not analyzed. There’s something beautiful in watching the crowd rise up to support Stickles, as he dropped his guitar to writhe and crowd surf during “Titus Andronicus,” one of the best songs off their first album, singing “Your life is over” not as a precious indie rock conceit, but as a brutal self-destruction of failed dreams and possibilities.

Well, it would be a bummer if it wasn’t so exuberant, and Titus Andronicus rises through the flames of their generation’s supposed defeat-the heck with the Civil War metaphors-as they attempt to be one of those anthemic bands for junior alcoholics like The Hold Steady that isn’t afraid to use a lot of words to say how they feel. Stickles, with his shaggy hair and shaggier beard, may look like a homeless man, but he’s a millennial Jesus for the indie rock crowd although he’s much younger than most people in attendance (he graduated from college only two years ago). A common refrain on “The Monitor” is “The enemy is everywhere,” which the band yells over and over on “Titus Andronicus Forever” and heck, maybe the world really is as downbeat and disastrous as Titus Andronicus sings in almost all of their songs. But they’re screaming and shouting about it rather than lying down and the next time they’re back in town, you should check them out.