It’s probably important to look at Titus Andronicus’ third album, Local Business, in the context of their first two albums. Lead singer/songwriter Patrick Stickles might agree (see: “but what of the classic contest/ content vs. context/ they have a fight/ context wins” via “Still Life with Hot Deuce on a Silver Platter”).
Their first album, The Airing of the Grievances, found Stickles in his home state of New Jersey, young, serious, and angry, seemingly barely able to cope with the unending frustration that accompanies being young, serious, and angry. Their second album, The Monitor, which really couldn’t be accurately summarized by anything less than a novel, was essentially the story of Stickles leaving the “enemy” behind in New Jersey and seeking greener pastures in Boston. The album follows an arc that eventually finds the narrator becoming disenchanted with his new home as well and realizing that the “enemy” is everywhere. The entire Civil War concept of the album is meant to highlight the fact that you can’t really avoid your enemy when it’s, literally, a part of your very essence. The album ends with a 14-mintue tirade, “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” with the narrator coming to understand that his worst struggles are internal, and deciding to return to New Jersey.
Local Business then, likely refers to unfinished “local” business on two levels: the problems of Stickles’s youth, haunting his hometown, that he had previously attempted to run away from rather than confront, and the most local business of all, the problems inside his own brain. It’s a fitting third act in that it sees Stickles finally coming to some resolution with respect to the issues raised in the band’s back-catalogue.
The album begins with three songs that, lyrically, pick up right where The Monitor left off. “Ecce Homo” starts off with Stickles seemingly commentating on the fruitlessness of his having railed against the ills of the world so enthusiastically on his prior album: “you can scream for a thousand years/ split the sky with a thousand curses/ to tell the evil that men do/ honey, you wouldn’t even scratch the surface.” “Ecce Homo” means ‘Behold the Man’ in Latin and is generally associated with paintings of Jesus being presented to the masses by Pontius Pilate prior to his crucifixion. The song finds Stickles talking about himself in the third person, seemingly back in the metro-area and ready to crucify the previously identified internal enemy.
“Still Life with Hot Deuce on a Silver Platter” continues down this path with the narrator lamenting the pain of his youth, (“tonight I'm crying for a baby/ who's never going to be born/ my authentic self was aborted/ at the age of four”) and yearning for a way to turn it into something productive: “I’m not gonna cry/ thinking about that baby/ but I’m gonna die/ die if I don’t try/ to bring that man to life.” Stickles also calls back to “Four Score and Seven” from The Monitor when seven archangels found him spread across the floor. Here, however, the same angels “don’t come around no more.” Divine intervention has seemingly been counted out and self-help the only alternative left.
This is followed up by “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus,” which continues with the theme of struggling to transition from miserable self-hating youth to some level of maturity and self-acceptance. The Earth’s not going to wait for you to grow up and being a bitter old man is a lot less palatable than being a bitter young man: “behold my brother's beautiful babies/ it's obvious to see/ the world's been making plans to go on without me” and “I gave my youth to yelling at rivers that refused to flood with angry tears.” The song itself is actually a send-up (possibly even mocking the immature severity) of a Titus Andronicus song from their first album: “Upon Viewing Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” seemingly lending further weight to the idea of fighting off one’s past self.
Throughout these first three songs, Titus also picks up, musically, where their last album left off. They’re still playing crunchy, dramatic punk-rock with patriotic electric guitars and militant drums while someone in the background pounds on Springsteen’s piano and Stickles howls, rather non-melodically, non-stop for nearly 15 minutes. It’s a fitting way for Stickles to re-visit the youthful problems that he needs to confront: by couching them in the youthful music of the band’s past. This course continues into the mid-section of the album when we finally get the showdown we’ve been waiting for.
First, we hear “Food Fight!” a song that ends up being a bit of a good-bye to youth, immaturity, and the Titus Andronicus of old. The band plays their best impression of themselves while screaming out nothing other than “food fight,” a phrase, which at first seems to be a representation of a quintessential adolescent event, though it soon becomes apparent that there’s a double meaning involving the idea of “fighting with your food.” The song transitions into the album’s centerpiece “My Eating Disorder.”
Here, Stickles finally confronts one of the major struggles of his life, his battle with Selective Eating Disorder. It’s a real (though extremely rare) thing, and it basically means you have a phobia of eating anything other than a select few foods. As one could imagine, it usually leaves you malnourished and rather unhappy. Stickles also references being medicated at an early age and apparently believing that it likely played a part in leading to his eating disorder and mental dissatisfaction. For all of that, however, the end of the song abruptly turns from Titus per usual into a borderline metallic dirge while Stickles announces: “my eating disorder/ it’s inside me” and then “spit it out.” There seems to finally be some level of acceptance here: he’s singing about this, he’s admitting it’s inside of him, and he’s “spitting it out” (a dark play on words between eating disorder verbiage and “finally admitting something.”)
The song is followed by “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO),” a reference to the “Titus Andronicus” songs on the first two albums, and is a Stooges-style proto-punk song that blisters and says nothing other than “I’m going insane;” a final admission and catharsis before moving on to the final act.
The final four songs on the album see Titus Andronicus, maybe post-crucifixion, resurrected, and sounding, relatively, as mature as they ever have and, if nothing else, decidedly “not punk.” “In a Big City,” “In a Small Body,” and “(I am the) Electric Man” feature guitars that jangle and, at some points, even “twang,” in a mutated country-hard rock shuffle, as if the band suddenly realized the Hold Steady’s shoes were getting cold. Stickles is actually “singing” here, especially on “In a Small Body” where he sounds practically melodic. Lyrically, he’s sounding positively confident. He’s living in New York and, while still by no means content, he’s seemingly come to some peace with his previous demons. See: “every cent I earned/ I spent/ and I would do it again”, “don’t tell me I was born free/ that joke has been old since high school.”
By the last song, “Tried to Quit Smoking,” he’s sounding as well adjusted and self-accepting as ever when he states: “what I did, I did/ who I am, I am/ then a stupid kid/ now a stupid man.” The album ends with Stickles stating that he “made his bed,” now he’s fucking “in it.” It’s a chance to play with the dual verb/adjective nature of “fuck” but it’s also a statement that once you find yourself in a situation, you might as well grow up and accept it. The band breaks out the harmonica and finishes the album with a four-minute blues jam that seems to indicate Titus Andronicus has finally beaten itself..