“Every time I make an album, I kind of figure that it’s going to be the last one,” Patrick Stickles told me in 2015. We were talking about the fourth Titus Andronicus LP, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, an expansive 93-minute rock opera in which Stickles reckoned with his own mental illness. He was not yet 30, but he already felt over the hill. By the punk-rock standards he was raised on, Stickles truly was ancient.
“This is a young person’s game,” he sighed. “It’s not a sustainable lifestyle.”
I was reminded of this three-year-old conversation the first time I played “Number One (In New York),” the dirge-like opener of Titus Andronicus’ latest album, A Productive Cough. In the song, Stickles piles imagery upon imagery depicting a world on the verge of apocalypse — which is to say, America in 2018.
The legendary Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt once said that not all of his songs are sad; a few of them are just hopeless. Much of “Number One (In New York)” is just hopeless. “The deceivers are speaking of peace like it’s reachable / The evil are peeking through cracks in the steeple,” Stickles barks. “Believe it, it’s real, ’tis the season .” Toward the end of this tortured eight-minute rant set against some broken-down piano chords, Stickles cocks an eyebrow and ponders why he’s still, somehow, living the same unsustainable rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. “Eleven years in and trying to stay relevant,” he says, “And I can’t begin to think what I’d tell people back home / So I tell it to the microphone.” On A Productive Cough, rote defiance in the face of intractable decay passes for optimism.
The very existence of this album dispels Stickles’ earlier proclamation about The Most Lamentable Tragedy marking the end of his band. And yet A Productive Cough feels different from what precedes it, sounding like the work of a solo artist surrounded by a coterie of backing musicians, rather than a full-fledged unit. Even if the band name endures, the band spirit, at least temporarily, has dissipated. (Stickles will perform on Titus Andronicus’ forthcoming tour with only the backing of pianist Alex Molini.)
If there’s a theme to A Productive Cough, it’s sketched out in the arc of “Number One (In New York)” — life is hard, and painful, and you inevitably lose friends along the way, but if you can make it to another day, you’ve won.
“A productive cough” is a clinical term for the sort of “wet” cough that you hope you don’t get — it’s what produces mucus or phlegm, as opposed to an unproductive “dry” cough, which indicates an irritated throat. As an album title, it evokes a kind of artistic purge, an opportunity to clear the decks for an artist uncomfortable with re-living past glories and pressing forward to an uncertain destination.
The rousing maximalism of Stickles’ most beloved work, typified by the Civil War-inspired sweep of 2010’s The Monitor, is almost entirely absent here. The way in which “Number One (In New York)” builds and builds without ever exploding is indicative of how this album operates. A Productive Cough is concerned with simpler pleasures and relatively stripped-down music, a world of neighborhood bodegas and woozy bar-band rock with blown-out blood-alcohol levels.