Titus Andronicus’ A Productive Cough Works Best When It Stops Trying So Hard

Filmmaker and photographer Ray Concepcion’s A Productive Cough: The Documentary is the rare making-of-an-album featurette that catches the artist explaining why they made the album instead of simply sharing how it was made. The flick spends most of an hour alternating between fly-on-the-wall scenes from the recording sessions that produced the new Titus Andronicus album, A Productive Cough — which was conceived at Marcato Recording, a revamped barn outside New Paltz, New York — and ogling the breathtaking expanse of wooded nature preserves that rest within walking distance of the facility. Just when you think that’s as good as it gets, singer-songwriter Patrick Stickles sits down for a chat with his father about why he writes, and the challenge of being an opinionated writer in dizzying, rapidly changing times. “I really should be a public service,” Stickle says, “and my music should have utility.” A little later, he maps out his intentions for listeners more plainly: “On a lonely, dark night, they got the headphones on, and I will speak to them about the way things are, as I see it. Their listening to it and accepting it is gonna validate me in my feelings, and hopefully when they see me asserting these things … they, too, will be validated, and we’ll create a validation loop.”

As the conversation unfolds, Stickles begins to wonder if his method has obscured his message. For over a decade, Titus Andronicus has refined a spirited, reverent brand of heartland-infused punk rock that pulled from the skyward American ambition of E Street Band greats like “Promised Land” as well as the dejected, acerbic musings of the Clash. It was music that blended a sharply defined sense of its place in rock and roll history with chilling, scabrous honesty. Stickles held nothing back. Pop on a record, and you might catch him outlining the harrowing details of life as a touring artist who suffers from selective eating disorder (see: Local Business’s “My Eating Disorder”) or worrying how much longer a struggling musician can survive on merit alone — because “there ain’t no more Rolling Stones” — as he does on The Monitor’s “A Pot in Which to Piss.” Speaking to his father, Stickles dismisses his old stuff as loud music made for the benefit of “young dumb drunk dudes punching each other,” and calls his own impassioned scream a “fear-based choice” employed to shield him in vulnerable moments. He was starting to worry that his noise and rage were just cheap thrills, so he imposed a “no punk bangers” rule.

The most striking sight in the sessions, short of beautiful forests and Stickles’s own bearded, wiry, electric frame, is a well-worn copy of writer Mark Polizzotti’s 33 ⅓ book on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. It makes sense for the young singer-songwriter to look back on Dylan’s mid-’60s output, where the legend ditched pointed acoustic protest music in favor of sprawling Dadaist parables and barrelhouse blues, to the horror of the community of winsome folkies he ran with early on. A Productive Cough is also a gear shift that doesn’t seem wise on paper. Peel away a rock band’s bluster, and you either get rustic genius like King of America and Led Zeppelin III or bad-faith folk and country crossovers like the last few years of Steven Tyler and Bon Jovi CMA bait. A Productive Cough is neither. There are smart ideas like the misty 3 a.m.-in-the-bar sing-along “Number One (in New York)” and “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone,” a cover of the Highway 61 Revisited classic that scathingly swaps every “you” for an “I,” in the process transforming a monumental kiss-off into a grueling assassination of the singer’s own character. There are also bad ideas that suggest Patrick Stickles is too cynical about resting on his laurels to let them save his album.

The idea to pare down the Titus Andronicus sound didn’t come from thin air. On 2015’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the band blew through 90 minutes of hard-core punk scorchers, ambient interludes, ten-minute hard rock epics, and lush, soulful tunes like “Fatal Flaw”; like a phlegm-rattling sneeze, A Productive Cough jettisons the last album’s loud guitars and quickened paces, leaning instead on wistful ballads and lush instrumentation. Titus is a band whose strength is often its fury, and its version of quietude can sometimes scan as schmaltz. “Real Talk” sounds like the Dave Matthews Band jamming with the Pogues, down to the exhausting simplicity of the lyrics. Stickles is working at being populist and sympathetic when he sings about storms and war on the horizon, but he’s a more relatable writer when he’s holding up his inner struggles as evidence of a national malaise than he is crooning “If the weather’s as bad as the weatherman says, we’re in for a real mean storm” in the bleeding-heart, freight-train directness of John Cougar Mellencamp. The worst of the batch is “Home Alone,” an eight-minute Neil Young knockoff that loses steam right at verse two, when you realize the riff and the lyric that just lists all the family members who are currently not at home will not be changing up for the next six minutes.

Titus Andronicus is capable of so much more when it applies itself. “Number One (in New York)” runs as long as “Home Alone,” but unlike the latter, whose momentum repeatedly starts and grinds to a hacking halt like a rusted junker stalling out in cold weather, “Number One” opens on a bleak image (“Salvage yard scavenging, bent over backwards / The caverns are vast and packed to the rafters with decaying corpses …”) and keeps breathlessly unfurling more disorder until it crashes in a hail of bells and cymbals. It feels like the long, indulgent tracking shot that opens Brian DePalma’s 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, like stumbling through a rabbit hole into a disorienting landscape where you must discern the rules exclusively through reading context cues. It feels like Trump’s America.

As long as A Productive Cough sustains this electrifying sense of purpose, it floats. “Crass Tattoo” is a short yarn about Stickles getting the anarchist punk band’s logo tatted on his shoulder that feels like a nod to The Who Sell Out’s “Tattoo,” another curt, plaintive song about coming of age through expressing your inner ideals outwardly on your body. “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” is a Wilco-esque shuffle and a drinker’s wise acknowledgment that the only people that can’t be charmed into believing we’re mannered professionals are the ones who sell us beer and smokes at odd hours. Closer “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco)” is about freaking out over the commute back home while you’re in the middle of a night out, and the feeling that your life just is a track that runs between the places you live, work, and play.

Simpler songs succeed at Stickles’s stated aim to do a “reverse Bob Dylan routine” with this album, to pull out of the thundering largesse of The Most Lamentable Tragedy into a style of writing and arranging that’s at once more compact and impactful, by finding a sweet spot between his own specific struggles and the ones plaguing the everyman. You don’t have to speak to the troubles of the whole country to be profound. There’s intrigue on the subway and in the corner store. There’s stress and magic and wonder in the hum of our daily routines. A Productive Cough works best when it stops trying so hard. You don’t have to write towering, foreboding masterworks like “Masters of War” or “The Times They Are a-Changing” to speak to the working class. Most times, a “Freight Train Blues” or an “All I Really Want to Do” will suffice.

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