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In 1861, the United States commissioned John Ericsson—widely considered one of Sweden's greatest engineers—to construct an iron-clad warship eventually christened the USS Monitor.
Napoleon had recently rejected a similar concept, but, at the onset of the American Civil War, the North needed something to compete with a new fleet of Confederate ships. Thus construction soon began at Continental Iron Works in good ol' Greenpoint, then New York's shipbuilding mecca.
Though that patch of Brooklyn is now a mecca of a different sort, Ericsson's valor lives on.
"This guy was definitely a visionary," says Patrick Stickles, captain of Titus Andronicus, a punk-implosion of a band born in Glen Rock, New Jersey, but now (mostly) calling Greenpoint home. "He's a great maritime genius. How could you not love someone like that?"
He corrects himself.
"Not 'love,' but be fascinated by. Robert E. Lee once said, 'It's good that war is so terrible—otherwise, we'd be too fond of it.'"
So deep is Stickles' devotion, in fact, that he named his band's new record The Monitor, though it's not, as you might initially fear, a bloated, waterlogged concept album about a Civil War ship that just so happened to play a pivotal role in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862.
Instead, like Sarah Vowell with her history memoirs, Stickles uses the Civil War as a loose framework for a series of anthemic battle cries concerned more with self-actualization than mere re-enactment, addressing both historical concerns and the thoroughly modern perils of getting fucked up and drinking too much whiskey and disappointing your parents and coping with people telling you that you'll always be a loser.
The Monitor thus starts off quite aggressively, on the front lines, ready to wage war with marching drums and frenetic guitar juxtaposed with shout-outs to both minor-league baseball team the Newark Bears and martyred abolitionist John Brown. Throughout its 10 tracks, Stickles drops a slew of inside references to parties gone sour, iconic Jersey highways and descriptions of the Northeast—particularly Boston, where he tried (and failed) to drop anchor after college.
Stickles himself isn't an aggro type, his talent for writing a fist-pumper for frat guys notwithstanding. He's a tall, lanky guy with a thin, long beard, soft-spoken yet very sociable, but with hints that he's fond of solitude too. He drops Langston Hughes quotes while professing a love for obscure Spacemen 3 records—things you don't acquire a taste for in the company of others. He writes all of the songs; band members have come and gone over the years, with bassist Ian Graetzer and drummer Eric Harm the constants.
Titus gained notoriety with its debut, The Airing of Grievances (reissued by their current label, XL, in January 2009), but Stickles admits that the record-buying public—a fickle bunch, he notes—only snapped up 7,000 copies.
This might explain The Monitor's heightened ambitions: "I was thinking about the roots of external conflict—what the roots were between the Union and the Confederacy," the frontman explains. "People who stood for one thing and people who stood for another, and their inabilities to get along. Why they stood for one thing and they felt so strongly. These external conflicts that we have with one another are really just outward manifestations of our own internal conflicts: that we're unhappy with ourselves and we're unable to be accountable for that."
Ultimately, like any good confessional, The Monitor chronicles a man wrestling with how to align himself with, well, his own self. Figuring out whether or not those who insisted, "You will always be a loser" (the record's catchiest chorus, by the way) were right. Because that'd be the worst: realizing you're a loser long after everyone else has.
Besides an evident fascination with naval warfare, Stickles and John Ericsson have little in common. The latter would go on to design what became the modern-day torpedo; finding revolutionary new ways to blow up shit became his calling card. Stickles, by contrast, turns inward, saddened by his surroundings, awash in self-loathing.
Monitor highlight "Titus Andronicus Forever" is a fight song that repeats the line, "The enemy is everywhere/The enemy is everywhere/But nobody seems worried or to care"; near the album's close, that sentiment is reprised as, "I'm sick and I'm scared/The enemy is everywhere."
It's a desperate, sinking feeling—the original USS Monitor did sink, after all.