Titus Andronicus, “A Productive Cough”
A Productive Cough
A soft barroom piano was the last thing I expected to introduce Titus Andronicus’s fifth album A Productive Cough. The New Jersey punk band dabbled with melody on their previous records, but none of those releases produced the kind of sweeping tavern ballads that fill their latest LP. This shift in gears is not accidental, but engineered to throw the listener off course. In the record’s press release, Titus Andronicus’s singer and primary songwriter Patrick Stickles spoke of his desire for sonic change. “The last record was very much a culmination of all that had come before—closing, or really slamming, a lot of doors,” he said. “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.”
Opening track “Number One (In New York)” is more of an epic poem set to music than a song, but it’s certainly a breath of fresh air. Its abstract renderings of bleak life are bursting with alliteration and frightening imagery. “Salvage yard scavenging, bent over backwards / The caverns are vast and packed to the rafters with decaying corpses,” Stickles sings, sounding like a less desperate Shane MacGowan. There are undeniable Irish folk overtones in this track, and despite a lyric claiming that “Dublin is so far away,” the pub-crawling choir and flute suggest otherwise.
“Real Talk” and “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” are similarly raucous but more carefree. These songs sound collaborative and loose, as if a marching band, piano man, and flock of crust punks recorded it while holed up in an abandoned music store, equipped with nothing more than instruments, a reel-to-reel, and a case of beer. The majority of A Productive Cough sounds this cacophonous and free, as if fresh oxygen has in fact been pumped into Stickles’s blood. Unfortunately, things get stifled on “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone,” a nine-minute Dylan cover. It seems like an odd choice for a seven-song record. Had Stickles chosen a lesser-known Dylan number, or at least made “Like a Rolling Stone” with his own arrangement, it might not have felt like a waste of limited space.
In addition to writing vivid and textural music, Stickles particularly excels at exposing the beautiful in the banal. On A Productive Cough he sings about the weatherman’s gospel, the omniscient knowledge of the bodega guy, and the existential drudgery of the morning commute. Stickles’s poetic currency enriches the mundane, and while his words may not be glamorous, they are relatable.