March 14, 2013 by Daniel
It must suck to have a commonly accepted magnum opus.
It’s great at the time, sure; besides the fact that you’ve put out something that the majority of people agree is an outstandingly effective piece of art, you also get to finally go on worldwide tours, sell a bunch of t-shirts, and maybe even show up on some “top 10” lists when the end of the year rolls around.
But when it’s a few years later and the flattering dust of worldwide acceptance has finally cleared, you now have one of the most truly insurmountable tasks ahead: you have to create something new with everyone watching you. Suddenly, people actually have expectations. Suddenly, you have an Album To Live Up To behind you, and where can you possibly go now?
Titus Andronicus no doubt faced this dilemma in the wake of their second record The Monitor, which put their tongue-twisting, Shakespeare-alluding name into the mouths of up-to-date punk and indie rock fans everywhere. And for good reason too – it’s a record that’s as high concept as it is down-to-earth, a concept album using the American Civil War as an extended metaphor for the battle within ourselves (it’s less hokey than it sounds), set against the backdrop of seven-minute-long punk epics that are as gritty and raw as they are Springsteen-bombastic. It’s such a fantastic record that they could have called it a day right after releasing it and it would have been enough to keep them in the music history books for more than a few years down the line.
So their follow-up Local Business puts them at that very weird, very stressful spot. But I’m here to tell you that they’ve lived up to The Monitor by picking what is possibly the most elegant route around it – completely ignoring it.
It’s not like they haven’t developed at all, and they’ve clearly taken some of the lessons that they learnt on The Monitor to heart. It’s just that Local Business is a comparatively modest album – there is no big concept here, no huge retooling of their sound, no obvious grasping for the coattails of past glory. And yet, it’s not so self-consciously small in a way that feels like a specific reaction to that album; it’s just another record that happens to follow the biggest one they’ve made yet. And it works. Really well, actually.
Essentially what they’ve done is use their popularity not as a shackle to their previous material, but as something that finally allows them true freedom – the result is the first Titus Andronicus album that feels fun. But don’t mistake this as a trade-off for the poetically-illustrated lyrics of the past – in fact, by easing up on the ambition, Patrick Stickles and Co. have created what is their most lucid, transparent, and overtly personal album ever, and this coming from a band who has always presented themselves as unceasingly earnest. There are heavy topics discussed here, from eating disorders, to self-image problems, to the scarily-increasing influence of technology on our everyday lives. It’s just that there’s also a minute-long honky-tonk-piano-laden blues jam called “Food Fight!”, and it’s this newly-found ability to crack the rare smile that gives the album it’s unique personality. Besides that, the simple fact is that the songs are just damn good, packed with the same sort of anthemic swagger Titus Andronicus are known for, but tempered with moments of spacious, minimalist emotion that give the album a really nice balance.
Simply put, Local Business is an elegant filler of some very tall boots, and while it may not feel like a momentous event, it makes up for it by being uniformly excellent. It’s a rather stunning example of grace under pressure, and every band should be so lucky as to have a magnum opus follow-up as confident and accomplished as this one is.