“Number One (In New York),” the opening track of punk band Titus Andronicus’ new album, A Productive Cough, is a slow-churning ballad that builds with a pensive, rigid pressure, escalating from a single solemn piano to a manic singalong. Yet the awaited payoff of release never arrive. There is no tipping point, no cathartic chorus or triumphant guitar solo — the wave never crests and the strain remains throughout.
“That song is kind of our state of the union for the album — we put it out there to dictate what to expect,” says Patrick Stickles, the frontman, chief songwriter, and lone full-time member of Titus Andronicus, who plays at the Chapel on Wednesday, March 28. “There is tension without release, but life is like that sometimes.”
For the past decade, Stickles has been meticulously examining the inherent tension of his everyday life, focusing on his battles with depression, anxiety and his conflicted feelings on weighty issues like religion, community and addiction. An erudite, brainy acolyte of fellow punk-poets Ted Leo and Paul Westerberg, Stickles’ discography includes defiant, angry opening statements (the group’s debut, The Airing of Grievances), sprawling double-disk rock operas (The Most Lamentable Tragedy) and ambitious concept albums (2009’s’s The Monitor, Titus Andronicus’ high-water mark.)
However, he has never quite put forth an album like A Productive Cough, an eclectic collection of softer songs that eschew (for the most part) the raging punk mentality of Titus Andronicus’ prior releases. The doors never get kicked in and the walls never get torn down on this album.
The album is first and foremost a rumination on life in New York — in addition to the opening track, Stickles pens another love letter to his adopted hometown with the late-night paean “Above the Bodega (Local Business).” But the record has its strange foibles. There is a cover of the Bob Dylan classic, “Like a Rolling Stone,” with Stickles co-opting the song with a first-person take, and a track sung completely by female lead Megg Farrell (“Crass Tattoo”—an homage to Stickles’ ink on his right arm.) The album only contains just seven tracks, although four of the songs cover more than seven minutes.
At first glance, the album might be viewed as a reaction to its predecessor, The Most Lamentable Tragedy — a way for Stickles to take a breath of air after such an ambitious undertaking — but the Titus’ frontman does not necessarily view it in that regard.
“I mean, there is only way to go after a rock opera — I couldn’t have gone any bigger,” Stickles says. “But people want this album to fit a certain narrative, and I don’t want to get bogged down with those details. This album should succeed or fail on its own merits.”
Stickles said the album was an attempt to redefine what a Titus Andronicus album means. Although A Productive Cough lacks the fast-paced punk tunes of past, the messages remain the same.
“It was my hope that the elements that unite all the Titus Andronicus songs would still be present in the absence of these loud guitar sounds,” Stickles says. “It’ll be clear that those are just the tools used to achieve my purpose, they are not the purpose in of itself.”
Adding another wrinkle to the latest iteration of Titus Andronicus — the band has cycled through more than 20 members — is the live setup for the group’s latest tour. Stickles is being joined by just one other member — pianist Alex Molini — for an acoustic rendering of his songs. Again, that is break from the past, when the band’s live performances featured ear-splitting guitar solos and amps cranked up to 11.
While some Titus Andronicus fans may question the new direction, Stickles’ fearless decision to reinvent the group is proof that he is engaged and committed to his musical project. Both before and after The Most Lamentable Tragedy, online fans and critics speculated if Titus Andronicus would be coming to a close. Stickles, however, remains as committed as ever.
“I’m very blessed and grateful that my fans still support me, and as long as they do, I’ll still be out here performing,” says Stickles. “Right now, I’m trying to live in the moment. You have to measure these things in small increments, but today, I feel good about where I am at.”
Titus Andronicus, with Rick Maguire, Wednesday, March 28, 8 p.m., at the Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $20-$22; thechapelsf.com.