"I think by now we've established/Everything is inherently worthless/And there's nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose."
That is the arresting line that opens up Titus Andronicus' new album, "Local Business." Heavy stuff, for sure, but nothing out of the ordinary for a band whose last record -- 2010's widely acclaimed "The Monitor" -- was a sprawling rock 'n' roll epic loosely based on the Civil War.
But why open an album with such a dreadful, sweeping statement? When asked by phone before his band's Thanksgiving gig at 7th Street Entry, frontman Patrick Stickles barely needed a moment to collect his thoughts.
"It opens up a discussion about the ability and the responsibility [of humans] within that void of meaninglessness to create meaning," he said of the opening song "Ecce Homo." "About how the individual is empowered to determine their own value system through the absence of a true inherent morality."
That might sound a little high-concept for beer-swilling punk rockers, but for all of the existential angst of "Local Business," much like Titus' two previous LPs, there's a hopefulness at the center. But this time Stickles and his New Jersey cohorts make a concerted effort to look inward, resulting in their most direct and candid work to date. If "The Monitor" was a heart-on-sleeve commentary about the trenches of social warfare, then "Local Business" is about the battle within ourselves and a never-ending pursuit for authenticity in a culture that's largely devoid of it.
"We always seem to want to have some kind of fight, because of our inherent dissatisfaction with being alive," Stickles mused, adding that humans are reluctant to take responsibility for that fact.
Stickles, an avid fan of French author Albert Camus, is chock full of rhetorical niceties. He doles them out as if he were reciting lines from his college dissertation. But all the intensity in his voice is edged with a level of modesty that saves him from sounding alienating or holier-than-thou. Stickles has some big questions to ask, but he isn't pretending he has the answers, either.
"I accept that the functionality of my brain is just a series of chemical reactions," he pointed out. "And in the absence of meaning, one chemical reaction is just as good as another one."
At its core, "Local Business" is a punk record. It's rife with weekend-warrior spirit and raw energy that recalls the distorted anthems of local luminaries the Replacements, as well as the me-against-the-world attitude of modern hardcore acts such as Fucked Up -- both of which Stickles cited as key influences for new record.
Despite all his world-weary polemics, Stickles takes plenty of time to turn the gun on himself on "Local Business." From being prescribed Ritalin at age 4 ("Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape With the Flood of Detritus") to his well publicized selective eating disorder ("My Eating Disorder"), he's an open wound all the way through. He stressed how writing about his eating disorder was a particularly daunting task.
"It's a deficiency of my character. You might want to go out for a night's dinner and I'm not really prepared to do that," Stickles said of SED, which limits him to consuming certain foods. "My family and stuff has had to make a lot of accommodations that I wouldn't wish to put on them. And the other guys in the band, I try not to let it affect them too much but sometimes it does, much to my chagrin. And I feel great shame about that."
But in spite of his discomfort, that kind of no-holds-barred honesty is something Stickles plans on striving for not only for the sake of authenticity, but also for the catharsis. As far as art goes, he stressed before hanging up, secrets are toxic.
"My eating disorder was a big secret that I kept for a long time. And it feels good to get it off my chest, if I can't get it out of my tummy."