Shakespeare references, a cappella intermissions and sprawling 10-minute tracks aren't what first spring to mind when thinking about punk albums. That's because most punk albums aren't remotely like Titus Andronicus' The Most Lamentable Tragedy — unless you count a handful of ambitious, legendary predecessors such as The Clash's London Calling and Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade. Like those two classics, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is an extra-length record (in this case, two CDs or three LPs). It tackles a staggering variety of styles, textures and voices, and it does so with an eye on theatricality; on expressing inner truths through alternating glimpses of intimacy and mad parades of vibrant, and vibrantly damaged, characters.
For Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles, this isn't new territory. The New Jersey band's second album, 2010's The Monitor, was a Civil War-obsessed concept album of impressive proportions, although Stickles scaled things back on 2012's Local Business. With Tragedy, though, he's once again scrawling punk rock large on a canvas that encompasses multitudes. But it isn't just an exercise in excess. The narrative follows the crooked hero's journey of a character who's confronted by his own doppelgänger, and while that's as tangled as it sounds, Stickles' sense of drama, dynamics and Replacements-worthy hooks helps carry the album through its thornier parts.
Make no mistake: For all its melodicism and glorious anthem-mongering, Tragedy is a challenging record. Aside from its length as a whole, two of its songs — "More Perfect Union" and "(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID" — near the 10-minute mark, each building and unraveling like mini-albums unto themselves. That's in sharp contrast to short shocks like "Look Alive," a concentrated blast of hardcore that recalls early Hüsker Dü. Stickles and crew aren't shy about wearing their influence on their sleeve, from the Elvis Costello-like sophistication of the soulful "Mr. E. Mann" to the spirited "Come On, Siobhán," which can only be a tribute to Dexy's Midnight Runners' '80s hit "Come On Eileen." That Celtic inflection carries over to a rousing cover of The Pogues' "A Pair Of Brown Eyes." This is, after all, a band that's been known to open its concerts with a faithful rendition of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town." But alongside such gravelly pub sing-alongs are poignant, at times even meditative interludes such as the a cappella "Sun Salutation," in which a Stickles-led choir gets downright medieval.
It's never going to be a surprise when a band named for a Shakespeare play drops a Bard Of Avon reference as an album title. (Variations of the phrase "The Most Lamentable Tragedy" have prefixed the names of plays such as Romeo And Juliet and, naturally, Titus Andronicus.) In Tragedy's case, it's more than cosmetic. Stickles' passionate, immersive, indelibly catchy song-cycle may not be strictly Shakespearean in scope and execution. But it aims for the same grand scale: a way to use immaculate craft and universal themes to expose — and even celebrate — the messiness of the human experience. Punk should count itself lucky.