In Titus Andronicus’s 2010 sophomore release, The Monitor, singer and lyricist Patrick Stickles takes a particularly ambitious tack in crafting a fully-realized concept album centered on a historical metaphor. As the first part of what will hopefully be a short series of posts, I’ll look at the album and consider its utilization of history for dramatic and thematic importance.
Unsurprisingly, a group named after a Shakespeare play tends to be rather lyrically dense. As such, the opening song of the album, “A More Perfect Union,” is laced with references both contemporary and historical. The first verse references Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” twists lyrics from Billy Bragg, and finishes by inverting Bruce Springsteen: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die.” A later biblical allusion places the singer as a Christ-figure: “If I come in on a donkey, let me go out on a gurney.” Yet the most consistent thread begins in this song with the heavy usage of lyrics from the “Battle Cry of Freedom” and continues throughout the rest of the album: the metaphor of the Civil War.
The Civil War is a subject rich in depth and meaning, even though it remains a polarizing, divisive moment in American history that has been reinterpreted and condensed into vastly different narratives – perhaps most obviously in Lost Cause ideology that deliberately minimizes the importance of slavery as a root cause, and instead trumpets the South as champions of state’s rights against an unjust federal government. Yet, even aside from deliberate attempts to distort history, perceptions of the Civil War are often flattened into a generic synthesis of tragedy, sentimentality, and recognition of valor – a process of reconciliation that David Blight focuses on in his book Race and Reunion (It’s worth noting this was a distinctly white response that marginalized the war’s emancipationist legacy, important to African Americans of the time – more on this in a future post).
Dealing with the way art and music interacts with history is distinctly tricky: art seeks to express a message, and often only uses context or motifs in order to further its own goals, not to fully embody or represent the truth of the historical experience. Titus Andronicus’s specific goals throughout The Monitor are somewhat elusive; the album can most clearly can be read as a loosely autobiographical account of Patrick Stickles’s move from New Jersey to Massachusetts and back, alternately trying to run away from and stand to fight in a interior Civil War of doubt, depression, and failure. This narrative is layered in metaphor, with different songs able to be read in different ways. Regardless, the music clearly uses the Civil War to explain the narrator’s wrenching inner conflicts, rather than intending that experience to explain the circumstances of the Civil War.
Even so, there’s interesting ambiguity as to how the album engages with the conflict. In one sense, it’s certainly appropriating a fraught historical event, drawing on only a limited portion of its meaning. Notably, the album chooses to not engage with slavery aside from a few allusions – practically speaking, a wise choice, as a white male songwriter claiming the metaphors of slavery for himself would be deeply problematic. Instead, the focus is on trauma, an approach that also rejects the false narrative of flat sentimentalism. As such, it stands out from other cursory utilizations of the Civil War milieu – while still distinctly tied to a perspective of white male angst, I feel it provides a more authentic and genuine adaptation than other comparable examples.
And finally, one of the most wholly successful ties to history is the album’s voiced readings of historical documents. The album opens with an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum address (or rather, a slight rearrangement that actually comes from Ken Burns’s documentary series – culture reflecting upon itself) and the first song closes with William Lloyd Garrison’s introduction to his anti-slavery publication, The Liberator. More than anything else, these interjections demonstrate the tremendous power of the original texts, which provide emotional resonance even a century and a half removed from their initial context. Though Patrick Stickles’s capability to connect his own perspective to a wider and more diverse audience might be uncertain, the reenacted historical excerpts feel particularly visceral and vibrant.