A Productive Cough was Patrick Stickles’ midlife crisis. This observation was made in charitable terms by sympathetic reviewers who remarked about the newfound maturity on the first grown-up Titus Andronicus album, and longtime fans of the New Jersey punkers who noted the slower tempos.
Even Stickles himself conceded as much; he long ago started sighing in interviews that he and the band were getting long in the tooth but it was particularly evident in lines such as “eleven years in and trying to stay relevant” on “Number One (In New York)” and songs such as “Crass Tattoo.” That was his “Glory Days” – Bruce Springsteen had drunken reminiscing to remind him of his fleeting youth, Stickles had a fading badge of subcutaneous ink promoting an anarchist punk band.
Coming out of an existential crossroad required him getting past the introspection and doubts and it was hard to find someone better suited for assisting him in that journey than Bob Mould. The labelmate and touring partner produced An Obelisk. Aside from having a keen ear for abrasive accessibility, he’s been through all of it before, reinventing himself a handful of times before finally emerging as a new and in many ways improved version of his angsty youthy self. His heart might have been even more important than his ears.
Whatever the motivation, Stickles rediscovered that there are a lot of things to be pissed about. “(I Blame) Society” is a surly swagger that might not be drunken outrage but would seem at home coming from a barstool all the same; “Beneath the Boot” sees Liam Betson approximate Lee Renaldo’s rhythmic skronk on Sonic Youth’s “Mary-Christ” while Stickles defends himself hoarse against said society for 88 seconds; the chorus of “On the Street” decries that there are “too many police” out to get him (it’s an uncanny mondegreen for “exterminate police” upon first listen though the fury of the track makes such sentiment seem not impossible). “Hey Ma” concludes with bagpipes, turning the mid-tempo rock/folk song into a Celtic dirge.
“Troubleman Unlimited” will do nothing to silence those who describe Titus Andronicus as the latest in a line of Jersey-bred protestants with its Springsteen cadence, though An Obelisk comes off a lot more as the next step from other likeminded punkers who take up the storyteller mantle. In fact, you don’t need to be from the Garden State to be a punk poet: the album reinforces that Stickle and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn are kindred spirits (although having the Minneapolis-bred Mould behind the recording console makes one less degree of separation), “Within the Graviton” shuffles like a less punkabilly Social Distortion and the first single, “Tumult Around the World,” closes the release with a message and bouncy bass by R.J. Gordon that Joe Strummer would likely have approved.
If A Productive Cough was Stickles questioning whether Titus Andronicus still fits into this world, An Obelisk is a defiant rage that concludes that it’s the world’s problem if they don’t, not theirs. Looking at everything objectively, it’s hard to argue.