The cannon fell silent at Appomattox nearly 150 years ago, as Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant in the antechamber of a small house. Just over two weeks later, Joseph Johnston and his Army of the South also surrendered, this time to the marauding William Tecumseh Sherman, finally bringing an end to four years of civil war. In the summer of 2009, a group of New Jersey punk rockers — named after Shakespeare’s most violent play, Titus Andronicus — assembled to record an album that would examine that terrible conflict.
I know of no other record quite like “The Monitor.” Named after the Union’s first ironclad warship, the album loses itself in the infinitude of the Civil War, dives headfirst into American history and wades through our complicated memory. Between most songs comes a lengthy quotation of sorts, spoken through a distorted microphone, as if from behind a veil — from Lincoln and Douglass, or perhaps from Garrison or an anonymous soldier.
“A More Perfect Union,” the album’s opening track, a microcosm of the record. It opens with a prescient speech from Lincoln, delivered twenty years before the war began: “As a nation of free men,” Lincoln says, “we will live forever or die by suicide,” a prophecy at once terrifying and thrilling. Soon, Titus Andronicus is off and running, as the percussion propels the band forward and singer Patrick Stickles spits out images of the rusting modern Northeast. He re-appropriates Springsteen — “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die” — and the guitar breaks into an untamed solo. Two minutes later he borrows extensively from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” urging his ragged band of Jersey punk warriors to rally round the flag and shout the battle cry of freedom. The song moves with rebellious spirit — the result of its lo-fi production and unruly instrumentation. But the record has much more in store.
For “The Monitor” reaches stunning heights. Unlike most other modern rock albums, this is no mere assortment of songs — no, this is a symphony, in which the music comes and goes but never ceases; it demands total attention throughout. One brilliant riff comes after another, and melodies arrive in rapid succession, all coming together to create a violent, rowdy work of punk rock. There are no choruses in this album, only repeated anthemic refrains, shouted with an intensity and fervor rarely heard in modern music. Those refrains provide the record’s most dramatic and poignant lines: the volcanic “You will always be a loser” in “No Future Part III,” strangely triumphant in its defeatism; the nervous “The enemy is everywhere” in “Titus Andronicus Forever,” reassuring in its paranoia; the frantic “It’s still us against them” on “Four Score and Seven,” unvanquished in its defiance. Titus Andronicus uses a musical structure that few other artists have dared to use, and the results attest to their success.
I doubt that any other bands approaching the mainstream could have pulled this album off. Titus Andronicus — fundamentally rebellious, but with an intensely cerebral bent — seems perfect for the job, bringing just the right combination of perfectionism and innovation. One cannot understate the importance of Stickles himself to this undertaking; without the distinctiveness of his voice, the record would have little chance of success. Like all good punk rock singers, he has a predisposition to rage, an inclination to which he often succumbs, letting his voice rise into a swelling fury, seeming to hit all notes at once. But at times, he betrays a remarkable tenderness. “To Old Friends and New,” the album’s finest ballad, is a gorgeous track, and it thrives on guest singer Cassie Ramone’s electric ambience and the undeniable authenticity of Stickles’ own voice. No one would claim that Stickles has the vocal ability of, say, Kurt Cobain, but he sure knows how to use it his range.
After 49 minutes of nearly continuous sound, Stickles and his band arrive at their closing number: the hugely ambitious, 14-minute “The Battle of Hampton Roads.” It begins simply, with Stickles narrating the aftermath of the clash between the USS Monitor and CSS Merrimack over a bare electric guitar. Steadily it grows, ever tenser as it progresses and Stickles sings of a world that has lost all morality. For ten minutes it goes on, until finally it breaks, now ready to reveal the album’s culmination: bagpipes, piercing through the music like Joseph Chamberlain’s men sprinting down Little Round Top. Whether they call the retreat or sound the advance we know not.
Those bagpipes force us to reconsider the entirety of the album. “The Monitor” is a work of existential conflict, of the bitter divide between the burdensome past and the bleak future. Quotations from men long since interred alternate with dead-end visions of the Northeast, where I-95 is the lifeblood, and the promise of a raucous Saturday night the only reason to keep on going. The songs themselves come across as abortive attempts at catharsis, at liberation — an impossible task, for the ghosts of the Civil War reappear again and again. By the time the album fades into ambient noise, any attempt to try to leave the past behind has lost all purpose.
Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This country has never quite shaken the Civil War. As a society we feel we have lost all direction; far from being a cohesive polity, we are nothing more than a group of people all looking their own ways. Titus Andronicus cannot accept that reality; something about it disturbs them to their core. “The Monitor” is a desperate attempt to find meaning in the modern world by looking back a century and a half to the men who made the country into its modern form. Perhaps we should all do the same.