When Titus Andronicus announced their fifth studio album A Productive Cough, the details came with a warning. This was said to be the biggest departure in sound and style for the New Jersey punk band. In albums past, the band blended real meaning with aggressive energy. It made for some exhilarating music that doubled as research opportunities for listeners to try and decode lyrical themes. This time around, though, frontman Patrick Stickles made it clear that this new material would likely not be well-received by most of his listeners. It sounded like a gamble for a band that has often gambled with big ideas. But many people were still willing to take this journey because Stickles is such a captivating, unique singer. And right off the bat, the album grabs your attention.
Opener “Number One (In New York)” opens with a striking image: “Salvage yard scavenging, bent over backwards, the caverns are vast and packed to the rafters with decaying corpses.” The words are rattled off in such an effortless way that the song refuses to stop and let you catch up. Musically, the track is built around mix of piano balladry with layers of strings and guitar. It immediately sounds like what Stickles intended it to, and ultimately it sticks the landing. The vivid poetry is rattled off by Stickles as the music constantly teeters on the edge of exploding. But that explosion never quite comes. Instead, it climaxes into what is essentially a barroom sing-a-long, which sets up the mood of the rest of the album. And it’s 8 minute runtime is never felt simply because of how suspenseful and raw the overall wash of sounds is. It pins you down with an impact you haven’t quite heard the band pull off in the past. But once the track wraps up and the next one starts, the album continues to ramble, and its impact fades fairly quickly.
Wanting to try something new, or to upend your musical identity is the cornerstone of the evolution of a band. And it’s not even surprising that Titus Andronicus would want a change of pace considering their last album was packed to the gills with ideas and sounds. The band went in a bold direction with their last LP, The Most Lamentable Tragedy because it was not only a dense rock opera, but it also ran 92 minutes. It was a lot to ask of fans, but ultimately it pays off. Despite lacking critical acclaim, TMLT showed a band at its peak of genius. The songwriting was impeccable and personal, and the instrumentals, although incredible fast-paced, worked to the advantage of an album that barrels through to a poignant climax. Unfortunately, perhaps because it wasn’t entirely well received, Stickles wanted to make something with less stakes.
But this need, or want, to tone things down still isn’t even all that new for the band. Their breakout album The Monitor was followed by a less ambitious follow-up, Local Business. The Monitor had an overarching concept whereas Local Business stuck to a concise, less thematically structured format. Ultimately, LB felt like a statement at the time, much like how A Productive Cough feels like a statement now. They were both saying the same thing: we don’t need some massive concept or incredibly energetic songs to the bring the goods. But in the end, both records fall a little short.
A Productive Cough is still not a total waste of time. Anything Stickles does is worth paying some attention to because he’s such an interesting guy with a unique voice. Aside from the opener, this album has hints of the greatness of Titus Andronicus. “Above The Bodega (Local Business)” has some truly great musicianship with its barroom stomp and swager. Stickles’ gritty vocals even work really well as it hovers over and blends in to a group of backup singers. He proves he’s capable of making songs like this, but ultimately, the lyrics don’t do a ton to tell much of a story which is something past albums were always so good at. “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone” is another kind of standout. It’s a cover of the classic Bob Dylan tune, but Stickles flips it on its head by changing all the “you” lyrics to “I.” He also ends the track by naming members of The Rolling Stones. This song succeeds not just because the original is good, but because you can feel the energy in the recording session. Instead of sounding like a direct attempt to make something vastly different than their previous work, it sounds like a group of musicians just having fun. Usually, this “band member’s having fun” things doesn’t make for good songs, but in this case it does. It gives a little levity to an album that feels too concerned with how it’s going to be received.
The song immediately following, “Home Alone,” presents the other side of listening to a band just jamming out, giving you nothing to really latch onto. The musicianship is tight, yet again, but the song amounts to no interesting lyrical ideas. The song is literally: “nobody’s home, I’m home alone / Mommy’s not home-Daddy’s not home / nobody’s home-I’m not home alone / I open the door-“honey I’m home” / but honey’s not home, I’m home alone / nobody’s home but I’m home, alone” repeated for 8 minutes while the band jams. Titus Andronicus are no strangers to making jam-out songs with short lyrics, but in the past those songs run very short. This one long overstays its welcome. And it doesn’t exactly ever warrant repeat listens.
The closer “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco’)” is short in length, but ends up kind of calling back to the opener. The lyrics here paint a vivid picture, much like the opener. It’s Stickles once again presenting neat details (“Glass-Hearted Lad stabs his own back in the passenger car / Gets discarded like trash ‘tween the tracks in the yard”) in a well-suited ramble. But similar musically to the opener, it feels like it’s building to a big finish that just never comes. Musically, it’s like a sleepy trudge to the end, making it hard for you to want to start it all over again.
When Stickles talks in the making-of documentary for this album, he claims that in the past he obscured his message with loud music and that this time he wanted to strip all the loudness away to present a clearer message. But, coincidentally, this is the least clear message out of any album from the group. Most of the songs on Cough are so thin on meaning that it kind of makes you wonder what the point was in dressing the music down. All that really ends up doing is showing its weaknesses. What Stickles may not understand is that in the past what made Titus Andronicus so great was that they made loud punk music that stood for things that were raw and real. The Most Lamentable Tragedy may have been an an insane, sprawling rock opera, but it very beautifully captured the struggle of mental illness. The message was never obscured, and the delivery system was refreshing in its energy. Titus Andronicus were always able to perfectly balance earnestness with punk music, but once they stripped away the punk the message also fades. In the end, nothing is inherently wrong with this album, but it never is quite right either. When Stickles rambles on past albums, it was akin to getting drunk with a friend who is spilling his guts to you. When he rambles on this album, it’s akin to a guy at the end of the bar who claims he has a great story to tell, but ends up just talking in circles.
2.5 out of 5.