You will always be a loser. It’s a sentence that pretty much nobody wants to hear, from friends, family members, or even random strangers. Just being called a loser in itself can feel like a punch in the gut. But to be condemned to eternal loserhood for eternity is a hell of a thing. So why were fans moving around and screaming that line repeatedly Thursday night at Emo’s like it was a triumphant battle call? Because Titus Andronicus was there.
Emo’s Austin Thursday night saw a modest but healthy stream of people come in through the door to see a trio of bands. The crowd was a mix of punk rock, indie and even kind of nerdy, but that seems to fit the music that would be played there that night. The people that were there were enthusiastic and eager to see this strange force known as Titus Andronicus.
First, there was Cartright, and indie folk rock band with hints of blues and punk thrown in there. Visually, the quartet looked like any four random 20-something Austinites plucked from the streets. But there wasn’t anything generic about the music that they kicked out. It was unpolished and even fragmented at times, but never distracting and it seemed to work. It honestly reminded me of fellow Austinite Daniel Johnston’s similarly coarse but endearing songs. It was both impressive and enjoyable to listen to. So often opening bands are something to sit through. This is one you should seek out.
Then there was The Midget Men – a group of veterans on the ATX indie scene that despite having a sound I thought had a broad appeal never really seemed to launch. I liked the Midget Men but being sandwiched between two more interesting bands didn’t do them any favors in the memorability category. I would describe their sound as indie rock that leans on the classics a bit more than most other band in the scene with some grunge in their as well. I think a lot of people who are going to see the Midget Men will like them, but it’s hard to find anything in there to love. Every element of the band, from the music to the lyrics to the stage presence is passable but nothing excels. Apparently, The Midget Men have opened for Titus Andronicus a few times in Austin and I don’t remember them from the last time I saw Titus at Emo’s. Either my previous experience was the exception or they’re as forgettable as they seem.
Then came the Headliner this small but dedicated group of fans was here to see – a strange band named after a Shakespeare play that sings songs about the Civil War (only not really). I probably listened to Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor 100 times while working at my previous office job. It was a good job and I liked the people, but simply put the work was repetitious and monotonous and not for me. Even though Patrick Stickles’s lyrics about discontentment and building frustration are about a situation almost entirely inverse of mine (I think that album could be called The Unemployed Guy’s Manifesto), it still stuck with me and reminded me that contentment doesn’t equal living up to someone else’s idea of success. It’s about being who you really are. And you will always be a loser.
That phrase in that context is liberating. For me it meant I didn’t have to worry about being impressive with my office job and good salary. It’s not impressive. I will always be a loser. So when the band came out and started with “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” in which that lyric is repeated ad nauseum, it instantly connected with the audience and they started moving around. Instead of the typical tough guy mosh pit that happens a lot at the outside Emo’s stage the crowd formed something more akin to a joyous, pulsating mob that moved in unison. It felt more unified and less competetive than your typical mosh pit and was perfect for the music of Titus Andronicus.
Titus Andronicus boasts something of an intellectual streak that’s kind of rare to see in rock music. Like other bands they hope for and advocate revolutions in society and the hearts and minds of listeners. But unlike most other bands they see the limits of that revolution. Often what they’re talking about is much, much more intangible than voting out corrupt politicians and rioting in the streets for justice. When they played Titus Andronicus Forever it occurred to me that when Stickles says “The Enemy is Everywhere” he’s referring to depression and self defeat more so than any external danger.
His face portrays that blend of anger and crushing sadness that defines their sound. Instead of going up to the stage and encouraging his fans to “come on, come on” he mostly stayed relegated to his spot and focused his energy on the songs and his weird facial expressions. Sometimes he looked really uncomfortable on stage and his face was contorted to almost be an exageration of anger, sadness and frustration. It reflects the state he was in when he wrote these songs and, who knows, maybe still is.
One of my favorite parts of watching Titus Andronicus is seeing Amy Klein rock out on the guitar and sometimes violin. When they opened the set she bounced around and swayed to the music, and contrasting Stickles’s look of pain and frustration she had a smile on her face that was reminiscent of a librarian sharing a good book with a patron. I think it’s because despite the dark subject matter the band deals with they still love and enjoy playing these songs and sharing them with the fans. Rock is too often about bravado and being intense, it’s nice to see someone on stage actually look like she’s enjoying herself.
The band played through most of the songs from their critically acclaimed The Monitor and a few choice tracks from the excellent though often over looked The Airing of Grievences. They even played a new song that Stickles said was about “mostly the same stuff.” The crowd responded well to slower numbers like To Old Friends and New about the frustrations of a difficult relationship. But they definitely seemed to prefer familiar rock-filled anthem like the popular “A More Perfect Union,” The Monitor’s opening track about fleeing from hometown Mahwah, New Jersey convinced that it’s the source of the sorrow and depression. They even fit in the 14 minute long album closer “The Battle of Hampton Road” about, after having discovered that the misery in Mahwah is spread across all fifty states and every nation, never letting it beat you down and staying defiant. When you scream, do it until you’re gasping for breath. They closed on my personal favorite “Four Score and Seven,” one of the most lively and rebellious track on the album, but by inspecting the lyrics you still see the conflict and pain that defines so much of Titus Andronicus. The track opens with the dark lyrics,
“This is a war we can’t win
After 10,000 years, it’s still us against them
And my heroes have always died at the end
So who’s going to account for these sins?”
But it’s not a wish for suicide or a quick demise. Stickles is saying he knows all men will die, and when he does die he “wasn’t born to die like a dog,” he was “born to die just like a man.” The track, and show, closes with the battle cry “It’s still us against them!” repeated again and again until finally he finishes it all by screaming “they’re winning.” It’s just as thought provoking as it is riling.
Titus Andronicus is an intellectual band without being pretentious. It rocks without being dumb. It reflects the pain and sorrow of life without being defeatist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Seeing them live is like a celebration of these attributes – it’s lively, rousing, and despite everything, triumphant.
(Titus Andronicus performed at Emo’s in Austin, Texas on April 21, 2011)