Divided we stand
A few great albums that suffered online slings and arrows
Published: January 13, 2011
For many of 2010’s albums, Newton’s third law applied hard: If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the magnitude of the action-reaction, i.e. musical love-hate, is on the scale of galaxies in their intensity. In other words, whatever an equality of dissent lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in sheer hate quotient. Being contrary is our right, after all – especially on the Internet.
Despite racking up moderate-to-high placements in many best of 2010 lists, Titus Andronicus’ sophomore release, The Monitor, has also racked up some serious third law. Released in March, months before Arcade Fire’s theme-album sonic boom, The Monitor’s Civil War-cum-modern anxiety epic had “split the emotional atom,” according to Pitchfork’s 8.7 rating. In crossing the war between the States with frontman Patrick Stickles’ own tale of leaving his home in New Jersey for Boston over a girl, they had created, according to Robert Christgau’s A- review, an “emo-Springsteen hybrid” – high praise for a bunch of Jersey kids. If nothing else, it was an album of exquisitely deep vision that, given the time to mature and find a place in the world, could eventually be something like this generation’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea.
But the band, and Stickles in particular, came under fire in various corners of the ever-opinionated Internet with posters complaining loudly about the laziness of the many references (or outright lyric cribbing, to some, most notably grabbing Billy Bragg and the Boss in the same line with, “No, I never wanted to change the world but I’m lookin’ for a new New Jersey / Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die”), the copious Civil War-era quotations ranging from Jefferson Davis to Walt Whitman and both young and old Lincoln, or the unsteady vocals throughout the album. “This sounds like [an] angrier Conor Oberst,” said one web post of Stickles’ voice. “Icky.”
Beyond the clangy, off-key singing, there is a second level to the dislike, or basic refusal to accept The Monitor as even something worth listening to. Upon seeing the link, I sent a friend to “The Battle of Hampton Roads” – a 14-minute mini-epic parallel between the first submarine battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in 1862 and Stickles’ own long, labored decision to move back to New Jersey. The friend said, simply and without any indication of whether he liked the song or not, “Why is it 14 minutes long?”
The Springsteen reference rears its head again in “Hampton Roads”: “I’m destroying everything that wouldn’t make me more like Bruce Springsteen / So, I’m going back to New Jersey / I do believe they’ve had enough of me.” But to be a musician from New Jersey, especially as close to the Freehold Borough as they are, is to live under the cloud of the Boss. “This one seems to collapse under the weight of its own self-importance,” another poster posited, adding that it “could easily do without those spoken word bits and with cutting most of the songs in half.” Indeed, the album’s shortest song, the just-shy-of-two-minutes “Titus Andronicus Forever” is little more than an extended chorus done up in anthem style, and the only other song under five minutes, “ ... And Ever,” is essentially a reprise of “Forever,” with much of the track’s two-and-a-half-minute running time actually taken up by a Lincoln quote, not music.
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