Friday, March 21, 2014

The Enemy is Everywhere!

Some will tell you that The Monitor by Titus Andronicus is an album about the American Civil War. But those people are wrong (I think). While the spirit of the Civil War is certainly in there somewhere, the historical stuff is really just a framing device, rather than the record's central theme. Aside from the spoken word parts that pepper the album - quotes from Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, and other movers and shakers of the era - direct references to the war are few and far between; instead, these songs tend to concentrate on far more modern matters.

The way I see it, The Monitor uses the Civil War as a metaphor for the various internal struggles that bring everybody down. Namely:
  • One vs. Oneself
  • One vs. One's Fellow Man
  • One vs. One's Country
For relative ease of digestion, I'll tackle these one-by-one.

One vs. Oneself
Self-loathing and internal conflict are important themes on The Monitor, and they're most plainly visible on No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future. Observe:

"Yes, I have surrendered what made me human, and all that I thought was true. And now there's a robot who lives in my brain and he tells me what to do. And I can't do nothing (without his permission) that wasn't part of the plan...but there is another, down in a dungeon, who never gave up the fight. And he'll be forever screaming, sometimes I hear him say, on a quiet night, he says: 'You will always be a loser...and that's okay!'"

These two robots, then. One is a strict and authoritative leader who meticulously plans out the protagonist's every action; the other is a slacker, a defeatist, insisting that no matter what the guy does, he will always be a loser. And he's torn between the two, just as America was yanked in two opposite directions by its two opposing armies.

Okay, I'm not saying it's the perfect parallel of the Civil War, but that's exactly my point - it's not an album about the Civil War, it's an album that uses the Civil War as a backdrop for its own purposes in the here and now. We are all America, and we've all got a Ulysses S. Grant and a Robert E. Lee inside of us, arguing drunkenly with each other and firing their muskets in the air. And that leads to self-hatred and especially self-destruction (as seen in Theme from 'Cheers', which is all about getting drunk).

One vs. One's Fellow Man
If there's one thing that this album makes clear, it's the fact that we all hate each other just as much now as we did back in the 1860s. Check out this excerpt from Richard II (subtitled 'Responsible Hate Anthem'):

"At the end of the day, to whatever extent you hate yourself, it isn't enough...there's only one dream that I keep close, and it's the one of my hand at your throat."

There's a rather brilliant moment in that same song when Patrick Stickles sings, "Of course, you have never been to blame for the various horrible things that you did - you may have gotten away with them, too, if not for those meddling kids". I really hope that this Scooby Doo reference was intended as a pop-cultural Civil War allegory, because it really works; the "meddling kids" of the Union defeat the enemy and put an end to the "various horrible things" they've been up to. All that's missing is the bit where they take off the mask.

We do get a resolution, of sorts, in the album's final moments. The Battle of Hampton Roads is preceded by this Abraham Lincoln quote:

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

And then, some ten-plus minutes later, the song itself ends thusly:

"But, my enemy, it's your name on my lips as I go to sleep...I'd be nothing without you my darling, please don't ever leave. Please don't ever leave."

This song is quite long so make sure that you don't have anywhere to be in the next 15 minutes before pressing play.

The "please don't ever leave" is repeated ad infinitum, really driving home Honest Abe's point about how we all need each other really. There's still room for a heaping dose of contempt, of course, but eventally it's better if we all just stick together and stay united. Like, y'know the United States of America.

</laboured comparison>

One vs. One's Country
One last observation and then I'll bring this heavy-handed essay of a blog post to an end. The third internal struggle is the one between a man (or a woman) and the country (s)he inhabits. I'm referring back to No Future Part Three, because - once again - it's probably the best example of what I'm on about:

"Senior year here in Mahwah, a new world just around the corner. Leave me behind, let me stagnate in a fortress of solitude."

There are other examples. The state of New Jersey carries the same cultural currency throughout The Monitor as it does in Bruce Springsteen songs, i.e. a dead end from which you must escape if you are to have any hope for life. The boring reality of life in the USA's duller parts is here set against the American Dream and "the values your forefathers gave you"; Americans were promised that they could succeed on their own talents and hard work, but it's hard to believe in that kinda thing when you're stuck in Mahwah, NJ with very few prospects.

Actually, New Jersey looks like kind of a fun place.

This bleakness once again leads to the bar, and to gettin' fucked up. What we end up with is a bunch of drunken frat boys who, when confronted with the idealistic 'we the people' values laid down by their founding fathers, respond with a dismissive "that shit's gay, dude". That's another line from The Battle of Hampton roads, a song that you really should scroll back up and listen to if you didn't already.

Patrick Stickles seems pretty spiteful towards these bro-type dudes, but the irony is that his narrator is a big drunkard too. In fact, I suspect that Theme from 'Cheers' was given that slightly misleading title as a cynical comment on the fact that the classic TV sitcom - an American institution, arguably - was based around a bunch of people drinking themselves slowly to death and trying to forget their various problems. America begets alcohol and drug abuse because America, for all of its beauty and good intentions, makes people miserable. Actually, forget the internal struggle Civil War stuff - maybe that's the central message of this album.

Then again, what do I know about being American? I live in Wales.

No comments:

Post a Comment