“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.
In a promotional interview posted on the band’s website, Stickles concedes that there are “no punk bangers on this one,” which he insists is a conscious choice to get out of his comfort zone. A Productive Cough instead is heavy on ballads and overt classic-rock moves — including a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” that’s been rechristened “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone” — and light on grand, over-arching concepts.
If The Most Lamentable Tragedy seemed like an attempt to make an epic masterpiece on the scale of Quadrophenia and The Wall, A Productive Cough is perhaps best appreciated as a record that’s destined to be overlooked, even dismissed, in its time, only to be re-evaluated later as an oddball classic. Neil Young and Lou Reed specialize in oddball classics — A Productive Cough resembles the records those masters made in the ’80s, when they were writing messy songs loaded with loopy, eccentric humor and wounded, pained idealism. Tonally, it has the same uneasy mix of sadness and “let’s get blasted to chase the demons away” resolve.
Again, classic rock is the crucial touchstone here. While Stickles’ scholarship of rock history was hinted at on previous Titus Andronicus albums, the influence was more spiritual than sonic. He evoked Springsteen without ever sounding like Springsteen. But on A Productive Cough, Stickles finally emulates the Boss musically, playing off a rambunctious horn section in the rampaging “Real Talk,” slipping in some “sha-la-la’s” into “Above The Bodega (Local Business),” and tearing off a long guitar solo while booming drums pound bombastically in the background of “Home Alone.”
Even the slow numbers, including the stunning “Crass Tattoo,” sung beautifully by New York City folkie Megg Farrell, give off a loose, well-lubricated air, akin to Young’s Tonight’s The Night era with cheap beer subbed in for tequila. If you’re on Stickles’ unique wavelength — many people, even those who love The Monitor, won’t be — it will sound endearingly sloppy, like a cheery drunken sing-along motivated by existential fear, rather than just sloppy-sloppy. Personally, I admire Stickles’ willingness to make an album that will likely confound the dabblers on Spotify, even as it pays dividends to those who spend the night poring over it on vinyl while putting away a sixpack.
The album’s true Rorschach test is that daffy Dylan cover. Cosmetically it is a straight-forward rendition, right down to the wheezing harmonica. But lyrically, Stickles makes some changes, altering the perspective from second to first-person. Instead of you being on your own with no direction home, Stickles turns the vitriol of “Like A Rolling Stone” on himself. (He also shouts out the Rolling Stones in the outro, including their sidemen, which results in the album’s funniest and most quotable moment: “Don’t forget Darryl Jones!”)
It’s pretty bizarre but also… kind of miraculous? Incredibly, the repurposed “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone” at some point transforms from Bob Dylan’s most overplayed track to a classic moment of Titus Andronicus-style “you’ll always be a loser!” anti-triumph. Like all of us, Stickles is stumbling in the midst of these pitch-black times, but he does so with courage and purpose, ultimately succeeding in finding himself in the unlikeliest of places.
A Productive Cough is out now via Merge Records. Get it here and stream it below.