A Productive Cough opens with a bang on “Real Talk,” the way you want a Titus Andronicus record to open: with a downbeat of drums, a piano, horns, followed shortly by a voice demanding us to “get real hype right now.” And twenty seconds in, a HUH and a HAH chases you towards a different voice, lead singer and songwriter Patrick Stickles: “If the weather’s as bad as the weatherman says / we’re in for a real bad storm.”
Stickles sets the scene as he’s been doing on Titus Andronicus records since the band’s inception in 2005.“If the times are as hard as folks are saying they are / some folks have it real, real hard.” “Real Talk” contemplates the past and “the deals we’ve made.” When Stickles reflects, “If the people upstairs acted like they even cared / I’d crack a real wide smile,” he’s onto something just like the rest of us are. Stickles knows the world we live in is bizarre and convoluted. The news is true, but it’s not quite true: “If things are as bad as the newspaper says / we’re in for a real big war.” The tone in his voice says…could this possibly be true?
None of it is. Even this scene I’m setting for you on A Productive Cough isn’t true. “Real Talk” is track two. A Productive Cough actually opens with a tiny screech followed by an eight-plus minute slow song, “Number One (In New York).” It’s a long, gutted note on a deep string instrument, with a layered wind instrument doing the same, and a tinkle on the piano. And as the first single, “Number One (In New York)” sets a very particular tone for the audience.
A Productive Cough is a new breed of a Titus Andronicus album, still full of long songs but only seven of them. It certainly still sounds like them, Stickles’ voice is as course as ever, but there are no screamers on this one, and no piano breakdowns at the five minute mark quickening the pace. Instead, A Productive Cough sinks down into itself and Stickles lets it set there, lodged deep enough in the mud, enough for a suction to take hold.
And he planned it that way.
Stickles says in an interview with journalist and musician Ryan H. Walsh published on the band’s website that the record is “meant to be hearty but digestible” like The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat (1968) or Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)—records the band knows and loves, records that are tidier and more concise than, say, a rock opera that lasts ninety-two minutes, like the band’s previous 2015 release The Most Lamentable Tragedy.
The politics of today pop up on A Productive Cough in ways that aren’t always so obvious. Stickles wrote track four “Crass Tattoo,” but had singer-songwriter Megg Farrell perform it. The song is based on the tattoo he got on his twenty-fourth birthday, in homage to Crass, the anarchist English art collective formed in 1977. As Stickles grows old in the punk community (he’s thirty-two) he uses the tattoo as a reminder, on his dominant arm, to continue to stand for social justice. He explained to Walsh that he wanted Farrell to sing it not just for her beautiful voice but in sync with Crass’ 1981 record Penis Envy where the band had Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre sing all the vocals.
“I thought that it would be in keeping with the mission and the message of Crass,” he told Walsh, “for the cis-male, myself, to step aside for a moment and not hog so much of the spotlight.” Farrell’s voice is practiced and strained, just as it’s supposed to sound with this story in context. Just like Stickles’ tattoo, the song is a reminder to stay grounded.
Alternatively, the most approachable song is the second single “Above The Bodega (Local Business)” that details the kind of relationship you have with someone who sees you buy a six pack of beer at noon, or when you’re drunk and need a deli sandwich for dinner.
The song remains in step with the prominence local businesses have played to Titus Andronicus’ output (not to mention the name of their 2012 LP, Local Business). Stickles is a local guy, one who wants to make sure the right people get paid, and that community is honored. He told Ryan Walsh it’s his favorite on the album, an essential song he tried to write that will hold up like “The Boys are Back In Town” or Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
The focus of what Stickles wanted to do with A Productive Cough hits home on track five, “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone.” You’ll find yourself missing a few of the lyrics when you instinctively sing along. Stickles switched all the pronouns from second person to first person, in order to turn the song on itself and onto the singer. A move he calls “the reverse Bob Dylan…You can cast about looking for someone else on whom to place the blame, but ultimately yr [sic] going to be stuck with yrself [sic],” Stickles told Walsh, “So I’m trying to take greater responsibility.”
It’s the little idiosyncrasies, like reversing a pronoun, that make up A Productive Cough and Titus Andronicus as a whole ethos. Even though the Titus Andronicus lineup has changed considerably, the band remains Patrick Stickles’ brainchild. He’s a verbose, literary songwriter. Blink and you’ll miss something (this time, it’s the word “deplorables”).
A Productive Cough is like a throat clearing before you make a big, bold statement, a statement that gets the attention of a room. It’s not quite the record you want it to be, but that’s the world we live in now.
Notable Tracks: “Above The Bodega (Local Business)” | “Crass Tattoo” | “Real Talk”