The Monitor: The Punk Album that Predicted Our Politics

One night soon after we moved to Atlanta, I was hanging out at the Graveyard Tavern, killing time before a show.  I picked up the local indie music magazine and read a review of a new album by a band called Titus Andronicus.  As a history professor, I was both intrigued and mortified.  It seemed audacious on so many fronts: they were named after Shakespeare’s most notoriously violent play, a punk band attempting a concept album about the Civil War.

Yes, that Civil War. The one with Stonewall Jackson and ironclads. It sounds like a recipe for a prog-ish, pretentious disaster, right?

The Monitor ended up being one of my favorite albums—one that I continually go back to and enjoy for its rage, anguish, grit, rawness, and ambition.  In ten songs, the New Jersey-based band weaves in threads of Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Brown into a ragged, rampacious epic about a nation divided against itself.  Titus’s debut effort, 2008’s The Airing of Grievances, was a more straightforwardly noisy punk affair, but The Monitor marries the band’s dissonant sound to an unabashed Springteenian streak.  They update the pathos of the Boss’s deindustrialized New Jersey, but in a new, angrier, more nihilistic register.  As Patrick Stickles screeches in one of the album’s best songs, “Tramps like us… BABY WE WERE BORN TO DIE!”

The album opens, almost unbelievably, with the recitation of a lengthy quote from Abraham Lincoln, in an old, creaky voice.

From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some transatlantic giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe and Asia could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio River or set a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.

As Lincoln suggests, only we can truly destroy ourselves—a thought that seems timelier and timelier these days.  Then erupts “A More Perfect Union,” as much of a manifesto as Titus Andronicus has.  Through seven ragged minutes, Stickles depicts a shabby Northeast full of hope and despair, invoking the Fung Wah bus, the Garden State Parkway, Jeff Davis hanging from a sour-apple tree:

I’m doing 70 on 17, 80 over 84
And I never let the Merritt Parkway magnetize me no more
Give me a brutal Somerville summer
Give me a cruel New England winter
Give me the great Pine Barrens
So I can see them turned into splinters

Notably, the song interpolates both “Born to Run” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” into one big noise. Titus mixes up New Jersey lore, American history, and Biblical imagery in a combustible melange, all with an anthemic angst clearly ripped from Bruce.

None of us shall be saved, every man will be a slave
For John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave and there’s rumbling down in the caves
So if it’s time for choosing sides, and to show this dirty city how we do the Jersey Slide
And if it deserves a better class of criminal
Then I’ma give it to them tonight

It’s a time for choosing sides.  What Titus portrays is a country coming apart at the seams—making the Civil War an apt metaphor for their music.  Having been released in the second year of Obama’s presidency, The Monitor seemed to anticipate the raw antagonisms that would be unleashed by the Tea Party, birtherism, and Trump.  Like a John the Baptist or a canary in the coal mine, they told of things to come, and the anger and bitterness of the music feels as apt now as it did in 2010.

A rage at moral rot underlies much of the music.  It would be easy to dismiss it as emo angst, but Titus are mad as hell at real things.  Perhaps at the time they were thinking of the violence of American imperialism, and the toadies of the Bush administration who stood by and enabled unspeakable atrocities to occur—the banality of evil.  This sentiment seems all the more resonant today, when one speaks to friends and neighbors who voted for Trump and somehow feel as pure as the freshly driven snow.  Consider, for instance, the song “Richard II, or Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem),” which barrels over a martial beat to capture the horror of war:

You’ll be cutting ears off of dead men

Pumping shells into their carcass for hours on end

And you’ll say that we’ve always been friends

And you’ll be unable to conceive how it could ever happen again

At times the lyrics might seem like adolescent railing against hypocrisy, as in the album’s epic final song, “The Battle of Hampton Roads”:

Solidarity’s gonna give a lot less than it’ll take
Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?
Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?

There may be more than a little melodrama and grandiosity in lyrics like this, but the sense of moral outrage in the song rings true, especially given the discussion of sexual violence in higher education, Hollywood, and politics that has developed in the years since. Indignation runs throughout the album, as Stickles and company use the framing device of the Civil War to refract the issues tearing apart American politics in the present day.  Social conflict becomes a zero-sum battle, where different camps are parked permanently in their own holes.  And not everyone will survive.  As Titus says in “Four Score and Seven”:

It’s still us against them

It’s still us against them

It’s still us against them

It’s still us against them

And they’re WINNINGGGGGGGG

Indeed, a recurring refrain on the album captures the sense of being in a state of siege, in a breathless, tumbling rock tempo: “The enemy is everywhere, the enemy is everywhere, well I’m worthless and weak and I’m sick and I’m scared and the enemy is everywhere.”

There are lighter moments, of course, albeit all tinged with at least weary resignation. The rollicking “Theme from ‘Cheers’” relocates the solidarity and sociability of the sitcom barflies to suburban New Jersey, where drinkers stumble their way up and down Rock Road, and contemplate becoming “dirty old men” who swap stories about their grandchildren while downing car bombs. But the old New Jersey despair is still there, in the form of self-medication and emotional repression:

So let’s get fucked up, and let’s pretend we’re all okay
And if you’ve got something that you can’t live with
Save it for another day, all right?
Save it for another day

Meanwhile, the boozy, last-call ballad to “To Old Friends and New” finds two drunks closing down the bar, ambivalent and confused:

Like the time traveler who killed his grandfather, these cycles are bringing me down
We could build a nice life together if we don’t kill each other first
Are you just too fucked up to understand me or is it the other way around?
Maybe it’s both, and I just don’t know which is worse

As Americans, we could build a nice life together, if we don’t kill each other first.  And at this point we’re all a little fucked up.

Writing and recording at the very start of the Tea Party insurgency, a little-known punk band from New Jersey gave us a historically literate and extremely angry portrayal of an America on the brink.  By 2017, the vision they painted seems more prescient than ever.  But the anger, frustration, and grief found in songs like “No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future” and “The Battle of Hampton Roads” offer a kind of folksy, sloppy, noisy expression of the fears and concerns that many of us are feeling in this time.  The band just happened to be ahead of the curve with The Monitor.

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