‘A Productive Cough’ shows Titus Andronicus realizing ambition in new ways
In 2010, Titus Andronicus achieved a breakthrough with their towering Civil War concept album The Monitor, a record featuring wildly raucous vocals, bagpipe soloists, and a host of outside collaborators. After calming down with the relatively normal Local Business, the band established their reputation for reckless ambition with The Most Lamentable Tragedy in 2015. This five-act rock opera, which clocked in at over 90 minutes long, was so dense and expansive that some critics thought it pushed the boundaries too much for its own good.
To follow up this monolith, Titus Andronicus has returned with a concise effort that excludes many of the bells and whistles found in their previous work. Though several tracks on A Productive Cough exceed the seven-minute mark, the band’s vision is ultimately simpler and more focused than at any other point in their career.
A Productive Cough is Titus Andronicus’ smallest album, if not in duration then certainly in scope. Instead of trying to make some grand statement as they normally do, the boys have come back with the singular purpose of making a good rock album. The raspy and dramatic opening track, “Number One (In New York),” is one of the only real soft spots on the album and even this song ends up sharpening to a point by the end.
The real main vein of this album lies somewhere closer to its Springsteen-esque second single, “Above the Bodega (Local Business).” With its upbeat instrumentation and marked gospel flair, complete with unabashed backing “sha la las,” this track represents the rowdy carelessness shared by most other tracks on this album, including “Real Talk,” “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Home Alone.”
Though, in some respects, it’s nice for Titus Andronicus to be a little bit more cohesive, the album does suffer a little bit in its tunnel vision. While this is easily the most fun Titus Andronicus album to date, it’s hard not to miss the days when they took themselves a bit more seriously and pushed themselves into further reaches of artistry than they do now. For this reason, A Productive Cough is best enjoyed as a mindless good time without remembering the reasons why you used to listen to them.
A nod to the past
As New Jersey natives, Titus Andronicus have never been able to escape comparison to Bruce Springsteen, nor has their sound ever hinted at any real effort to avoid his influence. Local Businessrelied heavily on the guidance of The Boss, but A Productive Cough may give even that album a run for its money. In fact, I’d be fairly easily convinced if you told me “Above the Bodega” was an unreleased outtake from Born in the U.S.A. While it doesn’t win the band a ton of originality points, this sound does sound natural when accompanied by the sandpaper voice of Patrick Stickles.
Of course, as Titus Andronicus has proven many times before, it’s not necessarily a problem to wear your influences on your sleeve. Stickles does this literally – the “Crass Tattoo” of this album is an actual tattoo of the early punk band Crass that he has on his arm. In fact, the most daring moment of A Productive Cough is also its most naked tribute. “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone” is a cover of the famous Bob Dylan song of the same name, in which Stickles changes the lyrics to make the entire song first person and shout out actual members of The Rolling Stones. To mess with one of the most revolutionary songs of all time and literally make it about himself is a bold move from Patrick Stickles that pays off well in context.
We’re in for a real big war!
One of the defining qualities of this album according to Patrick Stickles is the absence of typical Titus Andronicus “punk bangers.” With all respect to Mr. Stickles, I’m not sure how he classifies “Home Alone” as anything but a banger. This track brings up the energy to a level rarely seen on A Productive Cough and becomes something of a climactic moment of the record as “Mass Transit Madness” plays it out quietly. As a song almost entirely motored by loud guitar chords, it will be interesting to note whether he attempts to play “Home Alone” on his upcoming semi-acoustic tour.
The only other moment with nearly this much raw vigor is the early cut “Real Talk.” This song takes on a repetitive old-time folksy verse style, recalling the barroom chant vibe of certain tracks from The Monitor (as well as Titus’ Irish punk heroes The Pogues). But if the music makes the sentiment feel old, the lyrics are certainly applicable to the modern age. “If things are as bad as the newspaper says / We’re in for a real big war,” proclaims Stickles, noting the near-apocalyptic headlines of this moment in American history. While the horns and guitars join the shouted vocals and make it all feel like something to sing about.
It’s this sense of fun in the face of adversity that really makes A Productive Cough worth a listen. It feels like anything that one could possibly be worried about is happening in the world today, from geopolitical tension to climate change and looming debt crises. It’s easy to cower into hopelessness and fear at a time like this, but Titus Andronicus has a different solution: if this is the end of the world, let’s at least have a good time while we watch it all burn.
“Number One (In New York)”
“(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone”
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