Audio for this feature is no longer available.
Listening to Local Business, the new album from New Jersey's Titus Andronicus, can feel like standing on the side of the highway, trying to make out words yelled from the open window of a passing car. Lead hollerer Patrick Stickles packs a lot of words into the album's first three songs and a lot of strangled urgency into his lyrics. Here's Local Business' opening couplet:
Okay I think that now we've established everything is inherently worthless
And there's nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose
That uplifting message follows exactly 22 seconds of confident, well-recorded drums pounded out over a road-ready guitar riff. Twenty-two seconds isn't much time to establish anything, but if you know the band's history, those lines turn from deeply despairing into darkly hilarious. For three albums now, Titus Andronicus has charged forward, waving its baggage like a battlefield pennant.
The band can be abrasive, but Local Business is the kindest album Stickles and company have made. There aren't as many rousing choruses here as on 2010's The Monitor, an album that cast self-sabotage in the aftermath of a failed relationship as a Civil War standoff, complete with faux-antique recordings of quotations about a union tearing itself apart. That's a deeply narcissistic impulse around which to build 65 minutes of music, but those sing-alongs swept listeners along.
The theme of Stickles' lyrics remains the same — they're about what happens when what frees you rubs up against what drags you down — but Local Business is far more assured. That gives everything, playful punk throwaways and moments of beauty alike, a chance to breathe. After the overstuffed opening trio of songs, the minute-long "Food Fight!" includes just two words. (Bet you can guess which ones.) The middle section of "In a Small Body" moves from a gorgeous guitar line to a breathtaking, drawn-out violin arrangement before Stickles resumes cataloging, with some vulgarity, bodily revolt.
Just about everything Stickles sings (including "Food Fight!") sounds like a mission statement, and his band hits musical high points to match the manifestos. "In a Big City" plays like the flip side to Arcade Fire's "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," about the pull and promise of life in a metropolis. "In a Big City" begins where that song ends, with Stickles' realization that he's "a drop in a deluge of hipsters," and that where you come from still matters once you get where you're going. The Arcade Fire song is built to soar. Titus Andronicus aims for reality, and keeps the rubber on the road.