Patrick Stickles' name is unlikely to grace a list of America's most accessible songwriters. The Titus Andronicus frontman specializes in intricate indie punk screeds that dwell on alienation, mental illness and the absurdity of existence. The fullest expression of this ethos was their fourth album, a five-act rock opera about bipolar disorder that referenced everything from Emma Lazarus sonnets to Seinfeld catchphrases. It succeeded in both concept and execution, but it was hardly inviting to new or casual listeners.
A Productive Cough deserves praise, then, for lowering Titus Andronicus's difficulty curve without compromising their fatalistic worldview. No longer fixated solely on characters' internal turmoil, Stickles has started to peer outward. In both subject matter and form, this series of extended ballads reflects Trump-era disenchantment and the importance of community in troubled times.
That's not to say Stickles has become an optimist. Corpse-strewn caverns and "deplorable forces" haunt lead single "Number One (In New York)," while imminent war seems unavoidable on "Real Talk." But a sense of camaraderie cuts through the gloom, whether in the "patronage of strangers" that forms the backbone of "Above the Bodega (Local Business)" or the "anarchist squat on Mermaid Avenue" vibe of "Crass Tattoo."
Even when the band vamps for too long on "Home Alone" and their "Like a Rolling Stone" cover, the large roster of guests and collaborators rarely feels unwieldy. Instead, A Productive Cough draws strength from its collective spirit. "It's still us against them and they're winning" continues to encapsulate the Titus Andronicus worldview, but the "us" part of that statement feels more important than ever. (Merge)