On June 21, Titus Andronicus’ sixth album, An Obelisk, will be released. It was announced just a few weeks ago, so I thought to celebrate the announcement we would look at their breakthrough album, 2010’s The Monitor. I’ve previously looked at Titus when they released their fifth album at the beginning of last year, but this concept album truly broke the mold for Titus in many ways.
“If destruction be our lot, we ourselves be its author and finisher” declares the narrator in the opening monologue to the album. This excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum speech was, when delivered, addressing the rising sectional conflict in the United States, but in the context of this album it should be viewed, like all Civil War allegories that this album is peppered with, as a commentary of the sectional conflicts within the narrator’s mind. As the song progresses we can hear more of this, as Stickles sings “as they hang [Confederate President] Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree I’ll sit beneath the leaves and weep.” This variation on a common lyric in marching tune “John Brown’s Body” demonstrates that he does not want to eliminate any part of his psyche “None of us shall be saved/Every man will be a slave” Stickles cries, inverting an 1862 Union song, to demonstrate we are all slaves to our own minds. “Glory glory Hallelujah/his truth is marching on” is directly lifted from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a rewriting of the previously mentioned tune “John Brown’s Body,” and demonstrates how reality must dictate one’s actions, not one’s emotions. This theme of truth is built on in the William Lloyd Garrison quote that closes out the song.
Indeed, Lincoln himself suffered a great deal from depression. Although the definitive book on Lincoln’s psychology, Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy, had not been published when The Monitor was being composed and recorded, it was not a poorly documented fact, and Stickles utilizes a quote from a letter of Lincoln’s at the beginning of “No Future Part III: Escape From No Future” when Okey Canfield Chenoweth III reads “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on Earth.”
The Civil War is so rich in The Monitor that there’s a further reading section. However, at its core The Monitor is really a concept album about mental illness which uses Civil War allegories to illustrate its pont (a concept more appealing to me than any concept album I could ever imagine). But these allegories are merely flourishes on top of an already rock solid album depicting mental illness. The vibrant, downbeat guitars and lengthy sustained chords give a feeling of darkness and doom, while the album can also be, at times, frenetic and energetic, giving a sense of urgency and despair, such as on “Titus Andronicus Forever” and “…And Ever”. The most varied and perhaps impressive from an arrangement perspective song is “To Old Friends And New,” a beautiful anthem about a relationship that’s gone sour but you desperately want to repair, either with someone else or, in the context of the album, with yourself.
Titus Andronicus broke the mold in 2010 when it was released. Their follow up albums, particularly the exceptionally ambitious 2015 album The Most Lamentable Tragedy, another concept album (in this case a rock opera) about mental illness that stretched to a staggering 3xLP, have dived into these themes (though not with this level of allusion) and done so quite successfully. But still, Titus Andronicus struggles to gain the critical and commercial success it did with this sophomore album. Hopefully, this summer, An Obelisk will amend that.
The Monitor is out now via Amazon on CD or vinyl
Addendum: it has been brought to my attention I am posting about the Civil War during Confederate Heritage Month, and must add that the white flag of surrender is the only Confederate flag that mattered.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.