Patrick Stickles is not a casual-sounding guy. Every gravel-ravaged line the Titus Andronicus singer ever sang sounded like it was yanked out of him with hurricane force. He delivers a philosophical treatise with the same cracked, urgent yip that he uses for a scatological joke, and he often follows one with the other. There’s a bigness inherent in his band’s sound. So, it feels just flatly inaccurate to cast the New Jersey punk band’s latest record, Local Business, as a minor statement following an epic one.
But The Monitor has to be reckoned with somehow. That 2010 album was way oversized, expressing personal feelings so huge that the only event Stickles found fit for comparison was the American Civil War (which was ridiculous and bonkers and all that). If there's a slight relaxing from the last album to now, it’s one that came from a subtle shift in songwriting and album-building focus, a decision that the life in front of us is big enough to matter without needing to graft it onto a bigger, more obviously dramatic metaphorical hook. So it’s not that Local Business sounds small. At all. It’s just that Titus Andronicus have done better making songs with real gravitas about mundane events. As fuel for an album full of super poppy punk songs about life’s indignities, the everyday works just fine.
It starts on an easy strum and an opening line as good or better than any we’ve heard this year: “Ok, I think that now we’ve established that everything is inherently worthless.” It’s both deflating and emboldening; the matter of cosmic justice is settled, so let’s get on with it. While his magical ability to craft anthemic hooks has been Stickles's most bankable songwriting skill, it’s not even his most impressive one. The album’s centerpiece, a typically honest self-laceration called “My Eating Disorder,” does its duty to build to a fist-pumping chorus. But it's the unusual specificity in the lines that lead there that manage to linger even longer. “They put something in my applesauce, but I found it” suggests paranoia, vindication, family friction, health problems and general shit-losing in one controlled stroke. It’s a song that expands The Monitor’s “the enemy is everywhere” mantra to include enemies lurking in our own bodies, our own minds. “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With the Flood of Detritus” is maybe the album’s most masterful miniature, managing to boil down topics of life, death and the limits the universe puts on our own ability to control our surroundings into a single Northwestern traffic jam that probably unfolded over a half an hour, tops. Which, like, whoa.
But discounting the heavy-duty undercurrents and valiant tilting against windmills that Stickles continues to refine, Local Business mainly just produces knife-sharp punk-pop. Its best moments, like the moving-to-Brooklyn jam “In a Big City,” might be more Ted Leo than Bruce Springsteen. But, you know what? That’s enough. Songwriting this strong should always be enough.