Since debuting in 2008, Titus Andronicus [hereafter +@] has been conditioning faithful listeners to always expect only the unexpected, consistently zigging where others would zag and maintaining a steadfast dedication to fearless ambition. With the March 2, 2018 release of the new studio album A Productive Cough on Merge Records, +@ has executed the most shocking departure yet—but only if, as ever mercurial singer-songwriter Patrick Stickles insists, “you haven’t been paying attention.”
In a move that may infuriate the black-denim-and-PBR set, A Productive Cough finds +@ setting aside the leadfooted punk anthems of yesteryear in favor of a subtler, more spacious approach that pushes Stickles’ soul-baring songwriting to the fore, creating a conversational intimacy between artist and audience with which previous +@ efforts had only flirted. “[+@] records have always had their fair share of ballads,” Stickles explains, “but they were always buried amidst a lot of screaming. Now, they are the cornerstones. Punk rock is nice, but it is but one tool in the toolbox from which I pull to achieve my artistic purpose, and that purpose has always been communication and validation. This time, perhaps I can more effectively talk to the people if I am not so busy yelling at them.”
The mission of A Productive Cough is made apparent from the first bars of opening track “Number One (In New York).” As a twinkling tableau of piano and dulcet horns unfolds, Stickles unleashes a breathless and unceasing 64-bar verse with subject matter as sprawling as the kitchen-sink arrangement, which grows to include sparkling guitars, twinkling bells, and uplifting choral vocals as Stickles searches desperately for the strength to carry on through an increasingly violent and frightening world.
This new restraint sacrifices none of +@’s singular intensity, from the merciless lyrical onslaught of “Number One (In New York)” to the blistering guitar solos which accompany the swaggering (Crazy) Horseplay of rock band workouts “Real Talk” and “Home Alone” to the disarmingly passionate commuter hymn “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco’).” Even the surprisingly groovy “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” hides, beneath its loose and spontaneous facade of zesty brass and propulsive congas, a pained admission of secret shame, despairing the challenge of keeping the dark side concealed before the ever-judgmental eye of the big city.
Across the record’s seven tracks, +@ remains as audacious as ever, a fact demonstrated with particular defiance by “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone,” which, through some considerate flipping of pronouns, reimagines Bob Dylan’s evergreen anthem as a self-eviscerating confessional, a chilling reminder that when you point the finger, three more fingers point back at you.
A Productive Cough was recorded by longtime +@ producer Kevin McMahon at Marcata Recording in New Paltz, NY, with an enviable cast of 21 elite musicians whose diverse backgrounds and skill sets allow +@ to incorporate far-reaching musical styles from country to rap to soul to jazz. Even amongst such luminaries as veteran pianist Rick Steph (Cat Power, Lucero, Hank Williams Jr.) and esteemed cellist Jane Scarpantoni (R.E.M., Bob Mould, Lou Reed), listeners may be most struck by what is sure to be a star-making turn on lead vocals from Brooklyn singer Megg Farrell for the aging-punk’s lament “Crass Tattoo,” as the perennially raspy Stickles humbly steps away from the microphone to enable what may be +@’s most unapologetically gorgeous track yet.
Throughout, Stickles and McMahon weave a dense, luscious tapestry of sound that will generously reward dedicated listeners, revealing new layers with each successive spin. For the first time, the orchestral flourishes and glistening details that have always colored +@ records are unobscured by walls of distortion, beckoning the listener further and further inward, until they are fully ensconced in a warm cocoon of sonic healing.
“The last record [2015’s rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy] was very much a culmination of all that had come before—closing, or really slamming, a lot of doors,” Stickles explains, “and to move forward, I had to look for a new door to walk through, only to find a window which had been cracked open all along. [A Productive Cough] is the gentle breeze which had been wafting through, which I can breathe in fully at last.”
Suddenly, Stickles grows serious: “We are a world at war,” he proclaims, clearing his long-suffering throat, “and if I know not the way to end or to win this way, perhaps I can comfort and nurture those who suffer through it. Perhaps I am not a good soldier, but I will strive to be a good nurse.”