A More Perfect Union

A More Perfect Union October 31, 2020

Since I got my Garrison on earlier this week, I’ve been listening again to one of my favorite rock songs from recent years, the opening track from Titus Andronicus’ 2010 album, The Monitor,A More Perfect Union.”

What first hooked me with this song, I think, was the details of Patrick Stickles’ anxious, haunted drive from New Jersey to New England. That’s a trip I’ve made many times, including too many times in the context of dying parents. So.

And part of the appeal, I’m sure, is that much of the song occupies the sweet spot between punk and power-pop that allows one to pogo around like an idiot, and that works well for those of us who grew up white-fundie Baptist and therefore never quite learned how to dance properly.

But beyond that, it’s just an amazing mess of a song — equal parts Bruce Springsteen and William Lloyd Garrison, one that morphs from a garage-rock anthem into a Union Army fight song and back again, with allusive invocations of Billy Bragg, MLK, Eric B., the Gospels, Simon and Garfunkel, the Dark Knight, a historic speech from Barack Obama, and a bunch of others I probably missed.

Here’s the full song from the album:

And here’s the video the band made for the radio edit, which is only half as long because it leaves out the 19th-century interlude, yet references the full song through costumes and other visual cues:

The annotators at Genius Lyrics do a nice job tracing most of the references and allusions here, especially with how those all relate to the autobiographical skeleton of the song. Yeah, that what it’s about on one level: Stickles moved from Jersey to Somerville, Massachusetts, only to find he wasn’t able to leave behind the depression he hoped to escape. That’s all very personal and particular and, yes, all the Civil War stuff — the long quotation from Lincoln at the start of the song and the one from Garrison at the end, plus the stanzas of Union fight songs imported into the middle — can be read primarily as metaphors for that personal story.

But I don’t think that’s all they mean. And I don’t think the original meaning of the Lincoln and Garrison stuff is unrelated to the personal struggles the song conveys. Stickles isn’t just using that national existential crisis as a random metaphor for his personal crisis, he’s saying that ongoing national struggle shapes his life — our lives — now, that it shapes any answer any of us tries to come up with to the questions of “who am I?” or “who am I becoming?” The speech from which this song takes its title says as much.

The whole song, in a sense, sits in that ominously pregnant pause before the “or” in Sen. Obama’s Philadelphia address. “We can do that. … And nothing will change. That is one option. [long pause] Or …”

That pause and all it represents — that teetering on a razor’s edge between hope and despair — is what this moment feels like today, three days before we learn whether or not we’re capable of something better. We’re about to learn whether or not “we can do that” too, whether or not we’re deserving of such an “or,” or if “destruction be our lot” at our own hands.

So that’s another reason I’m revisiting this song today.

The Genius Lyrics annotators highlight the Springsteen reference of “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die,” but that doesn’t adequately convey the overwhelming Springsteen-ishness of the whole song which is, after all, the tale of a Jersey boy getting in a car to leave his hometown behind in pursuit of liberation, only to find that you can take the boy out of Jersey but you can’t take the Jersey out of the boy. It doesn’t get more Bruce-y than that.

But while it’s not a stretch to see how that relates to a bit of Glory, glory, hallelujah and a battle cry of freedom, it still seems like the wrong revolutionary war for a song set amid the battlefields of New Jersey and Massachusetts. Schoolchildren in both of those places go on field trips to historic houses where George Washington once slept, so why is Stickles, instead, singing songs from the second revolution and introducing the song with a quote from Abraham Lincoln?

I think it’s because that’s the deeper context both for Stickles’ personal journey and for any iteration of “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road” or any other song about the yearning of all the shut-down strangers and hot-rod angels rumbling through this promised land. What does it mean to believe in that promised land when it’s a place that hung John Brown but not Jeff Davis? When it’s a place that still hangs John Brown but not Jeff Davis?

In between the lines borrowed from “John Brown’s Body” and those from Root’s “Battle Cry,” Stickles injects an extremely specific detail from his personal story:

So if it’s time for choosing sides,
To show this dirty city how we do the Jersey Slide
And if it deserves a better class of criminal
Then I’ma give it to them tonight

On one level, again, that’s simply a response to trying to navigate one of Massachusetts’ infamous “rotaries” — what those of us from Jersey call “traffic circles.” But I also think that crossroads moment harks back to Huckleberry Finn on the river that later evolved into Springsteen’s highway. At some point, it’s time for choosing sides. And even though John Brown was hung as a criminal — because he was a law-breaking criminal — well, all right then, I’ll go to Hell. “And if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too,” going whole-hog, even if that means becoming what the inverted morality of Miss Watson’s world thinks of as Heath Ledger’s Joker.

If you wonder if I’m reading too much into the song’s Civil War-era allusions, maybe I am. But bear in mind again that this is just the first song from an album named after a Union battleship, and one that ends with a song called “The Battle of Hampton Roads” which starts with that event, heads back to Jersey on 84, and makes peace with never making peace with the devil-gods of this country and its history.

Or take the time to re-read the speech that gives this song its name. That’s where we’re at right now. And maybe the best-case scenario is to hope that’s where we’re still be able to be a week from now.

Rally ’round the flag. Glory, glory, etc.

Here’s one final version of the song, live at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago in 2010. I take some hope from the way Stickles introduces the band here as “from Glen Rock, New Jersey.” Not from Somerville or Boston. As a wise man once said, “the way of improvement leads home.”

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