At the start of Local Business, the third album from Titus Andronicus, there comes an admission: “Okay, I think by now we’ve established / Everything’s inherently worthless / And there’s nothing in the universe / With any kind of objective purpose”. For frontman Patrick Stickles, now three albums into a discography of dissatisfied, disgruntled and self-deprecating punk rock, it’s a particularly self-aware observation. But as an indication of the music to be found on the album that it precedes, it proves to be elusive – Local Business is, for better or for worse, Titus Andronicus’ most relentlessly bombastic and straight up fun album yet.
Yes, there is a song called “Food Fight!”. Yes, it contains a harmonica solo. There’s also “(I Am The) Electric Man”, which proudly wears its dad -rock cheese on its sleeve, vocal ad-libs and all (“Fellas! One more time now!”). In the words of the band themselves, this is an album with “no ringers, no gimmicks, no nonsense, just five guys rocking out”. And while it’s easy to see the temptation of this punk rock sensibility, Local Business feels at times unable to support the weight of its own restless energy, both lyrically and musically. It’s an album that, although not lacking in musical ideas, feels disparate and tonally homogenous.
The bands previous album, 2010s The Monitor, sidestepped many of these issues with its loosely defined concept – a playful vision of wartime America that served as a fitting backdrop for Stickles lamentations about his home town, as well as his own internal conflicts. The “us vs. them” mentality that pervaded the albums many wartime recordings became something of a nameless and faceless subject for Stickles’ seemingly endless spout of disgruntled, unsatisfied, and often self-deprecating lyrics. When he shouted “the enemy is everywhere, the enemy is everywhere”, it didn’t matter if he was engaging in some kind of grand lyrical war re-enactment or if he was teetering on the edge of social paranoia – the point was the sentiment. And the bands ability to turn his defeated pessimism into anthemic sing-alongs was staggering – see the end of “No Future Part III”, in which Stickles’ self-directed admission “you will always be a loser” grew from a quiet sigh to a cacophony of rolling drums and chanting voices that few punk rock records could match for sheer, gut-punching catharsis.
This kind of catharsis is largely missing from Local Business. It’s relentless insistence on rocking the fuck out make the attempts at heartfelt sentimentality (such as on closer “I Tried To Quit Smoking”) feel unearned, and ensure that its climactic moments fall on deaf ears. “My Eating Disorder” for example, builds with growing intensity to the end of its eight minutes as Stickles repeatedly chants “spit it out! spit it out!” But the payoff is a long way from, say, the pummelling confessional at the end of “The Battle of Hampton Roads”. Likewise, “In a Big City” aims for an Arcade Fire-like grandeur with its strings, glockenspiels and chanted backing vocals. In the context of the album as a whole, however, it feels slightly out of place and somewhat insincere.
There are moments where the band approach the power of their previous album – “Upon Viewing Oregon…” is all tambourine handclaps and chanted, multi-tracked choruses, sounding something like a punk rock christmas song. Opener “Ecce Homo” is another, a steady chug that builds to an expansive conclusion full of angelic backing harmonies. But these individual highlights are not enough to dispel the feeling that Local Business is a missed opportunity.
If Titus Andronicus have sacrificed some of the power in their song writing for the sake of energy, at least they’ve done it in earnest. There are few bands more fun than Titus Andronicus at their best – you just wish, with Local Business, they’d been able to capture that lightning in a bottle and make it into a grander statement.