Given the band’s affinity for energy and explosions, Titus Andronicus is often compared to Hüsker Dü and The Clash, but a better corollary might be The Who. Both bands specialize in sudden tonal shifts from bombast to sensitive soul-searching, and like The Who, Titus Andronicus caters in collections of songs that work together for a high concept. Not for nothing do the liner notes credit frontman Patrick Stickles as both the writer and director of this project.
In the case of The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the band’s fourth album and its first for Merge Records, the concept is particularly vague: According to the album’s notes, the record is an allegory about an “unnamed protagonist in an unspecified place and time.” Over the course of 29 tracks and 93 minutes, the double album follows this protagonist through existential crises, bouts of rage, periods of romantic longing, moments of epiphany, and downright confusion. Given this chaotic trajectory and its corresponding eclectic songs, Tragedy holds together surprisingly well. There’s a Springsteen-esque, glockenspiel-heavy number (the charming “Mr. E. Mann”), a handful of amped-up barnstormers (the propulsive, downright fun “Fired Up” and “Dimed Out” among them), and worthy covers of Daniel Johnston’s “Lost My Mind” and The Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes.” “Come On, Siobhán,” which the liner notes claim is the result of the protagonist’s past-life flashback, is full of desperation. For the most part, it all works together nicely, and like gangbusters.
The parts that don’t quite work are the result of the record’s concept overshadowing its songs. The Most Lamentable Tragedy has interludes, intros and outros, a choral rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” and, most notably, a track called “[ seven seconds ]” that is simply seven seconds of silence. These breaks are meant to serve a narrative purpose (the silent track is supposedly a scene “in which our hero pauses to contemplate”), but they effectively kill the considerable momentum that Titus Andronicus works feverishly to accumulate.
It’s that work—pure, visceral, and undeniable—that comes across most vividly on The Most Lamentable Tragedy. You can hear, see, feel Titus Andronicus trying their damnedest, and when the band’s talented musicians aren’t interrupted for the sake of concept, that enthusiasm and the resulting excellent songs pass infectiously to the listener.