Colin Hanks spends most of the young-author-wish-fulfillment comedy Orange County whining about how he’ll never be one of the greats if he doesn’t escape his bourgeois hometown, until he’s told that “every good writer has a conflicted relationship with the place where he grew up—Joyce, Faulkner, Tolstoy.” While his tastes skew more toward Shakespeare and Camus, it’s easy to see Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles appreciating this bridging of the highbrow and lowbrow. After all, Stickles and his bandmates spent much of their debut album, The Airing Of Grievances, bashing out sloppy “fuck this town” anthems with titles that give equal billing to a Renaissance master, gonzo journalism, and a made-for-TV apocalypse—bridges more absurd than a trio of literary icons being name-dropped by an MTV-produced Jack Black vehicle. On its follow-up, The Monitor, Titus Andronicus turns to even more disparate sources, forming its sprawling screeds around Faulkner’s deepest well of inspiration: The American Civil War.
In spite of its era-appropriate spoken-word interludes (including the inspired/winking casting of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn as Walt Whitman), The Monitor isn’t the Civil War concept record some have made it out to be—like Grievances, it’s largely about Stickles’ love-hate arrangement with his home state of New Jersey, and the ambitions that home keeps restrained. It’s through the blue-and-gray drag act that Stickles explores that tension, fretting audibly that if “the enemy is everywhere,” it might as well be lurking within him, too. His harried bleat frequently cracks under the pressure, but Stickles has drafted loose-limbed instrumental reinforcements, as capable with a regretful waltz (“To Old Friends And New,” featuring the always-crushing murmur of Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner) as they are with surging punk-busker bluster (“Titus Andronicus Forever,” “The Battle Of Hampton Roads”). Clocking in at just over an hour, The Monitor is a self-indulgent statement, to be sure—but some of the best ambitious works are often the most personal.