“My words are all worthlessly murmured away” murmurs Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles to a crowd of hundreds at The Sinclair in Boston, the opening night of the tour. I couldn’t help but giggle. I’d heard the line before, my vinyl pre-order of the new album the lyric is from having arrived nearly a week before the launch date (there’s something to buying your music, kids) which itself had been a week before the concert. But it only struck me then, having read Stickles’ remarks about how he felt the album was a departure that many fans wouldn’t understand, the way that lyric can be applied to many people’s understanding of his music.
I didn’t know what to expect reading the marketing for the album. Stickles repeatedly described it as a “departure” that no one would see coming “unless they had been paying attention.” The announcement that the tour would be acoustic was a helpful clue (the tour is not acoustic, as Patrick plays an electric guitar and the keyboard sounds like an electric piano, but the minimal instrumentation is in the spirit of the acoustic feel), but I still didn’t quite know where he was going? Would this be like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska? Perhaps it would be singer-songwriter like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell? Maybe it would be a folk punk album like AJJ’s People Who Can Eat People. The answer came to me on February 27 when my vinyl pre-order arrived, several days before the release of the album (buying physical media pays off). I listened to it (first the lovely 45 of the fifth track on the album, their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, then the other six tracks on the LP), and felt it was mostly the same as Titus Andronicus’s previous work.
I can’t say that I was disappointed. I loved The Monitor and Local Business, the two albums it felt most like, and I wasn’t sure that Patrick Stickles would have done the genres I had imagined as well as what was on the disc I had just listened to, but still I felt confused in the way you would when you bite into what you think is Baby Bell Swiss cheese but is really Monterrey Jack, and you prefer the sharp, melancholy taste that sometimes makes you worry about the man who makes the cheese you love so much, but you can’t help but wonder what that creamy, acoustic, pop-centric cheese would have tasted like.
But going to see Patrick Stickles perform with that reduced instrumentation on March 8 clarified how it was a departure. All the fuzz had been stripped away, the lengthy guitar solos that populated the five parts of No Future were gone, and the anger that defined songs like “Fatal Flaw” and “Dimed Out” had been replaced with a passionate plea for help. At it’s core, A Productive Cough is a departure because Titus Andronicus is no longer mad.
You can hear this most clearly on “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” which has the same rhythm and cadence, as well as a similar tempo, as “Mister E Mann” from The Most Lamentable Tragedy. I don’t mean to accuse Stickles of repetition, as the chords and melody are significantly different, but the similarities demonstrate how this is the same Titus Andronicus we know and love. Indeed, wouldn’t “To Old Friends And New” from The Monitor fit alongside guest sung piano ballad “Crass Tattoo” with a certain harmony?
I suppose I’ve spent so much time discussing the continuity of the album with Titus’s greater discography I haven’t answered the crucial question: was it good? Most certainly yes. It is as well executed as it is varied. “Real Talk” feels like it could be an odd, punk cover of a previously unknown Cab Calloway number, in rhythm, chords, and for much of the song lyrics. “Home Alone” is a chilling and exciting near instrumental, and I just realized I haven’t even mentioned the stellar and, at times, successfully comical cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” that first excited me during the pre-release. It is in a league with Titus Andronicus’s greatest other works like The Monitor and Local Business, arguably surpassing them.
A Productive Cough by Titus Andronicus is available from Merge Records on CD, vinyl, or digital donwload now.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.