As we descend into the basement that houses Titus Andronicus’ practice space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, frontman Patrick Stickles warns me about the smell. In some unholy mixture of trash stored in subterranean heat, a dead rodent decomposing somewhere, and old band clothes left to rot, the narrow labyrinth of rented rooms is indeed rank. But soon we are through that, as Stickles unlocks a door and lights some incense in his own room, unveiling the “inner sanctum,” as he’s taken to calling it. It is, essentially, a narrow closet, with amps and odds and ends stacked against the walls and a drum kit crammed in the far corner, decorated with old setlists, all of it allowing for maybe one person to walk through at any time. Here, Stickles unfolds a chair, occasionally fiddles with a guitar, and tells me about how the new Titus Andronicus album The Will To Live came into being in this very room.

It took a lot to get to The Will To Live—17 years of the indie rock band, endless touring and lineup changes, as well as significant changes and traumas in Stickles’ life. And first, there was the pandemic. “I’d lost my identity as an artist from not being onstage,” Stickles recalls. “I was a layabout bum for the most part.” But when lockdowns loosened up in 2021, he decided it was time to “get back on the horse.” He began spending hours in this little room alone, building up songs for the next Titus album. At one point he plays me a demo of “(I’m) Screwed”—The Will To Live’s official lead single, and a “Dimed Out”-level instant classic in the Titus canon—and all the pieces from the final version are there, painstakingly arranged. It took a lot of time and diligence, differing from how Stickles would’ve worked in the past—both in more chaotic times, and in the basic fact he prefers to have the band together to sort material out. Unable to do that, the environment changed: “It was largely a solitary monastic experience down here, when it used to be a Guided By Voices, beer-drinking hang," he says.

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Yet while these humble surroundings and origins might suggest a Titus Andronicus album smaller in scope, such as The Will To Live’s 2018 and 2019 predecessors A Productive Cough and An Obelisk, Stickles had grander designs. Musically, The Will To Live is his attempt to attain, as he dubs it, Ultimate Rock. The band's recent process of punk ceding to classic rock has continued here, with a tight and powerful sound not without its own surprises. Some of his reference points may be unexpected: Stickles found himself digging deep into Boston’s first album, Mutt Lange productions like Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Bryan AdamsWaking Up The Neighbours. He namechecks Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf, he mentions Faith No More’s The Real Thing. “A muscular, effective, precise, and coherent approach to rock,” he says of these albums, and what they inspired in him. “Every song is like a hit, and they’re all larger than life.”

The latter quality is important, and another foundational premise of The Will To Live. Titus’ producer this time around, Howard Bilerman, told Stickles he should write one of those albums that feels like a greatest hits compilation, but comprising all new material. Stickles liked that charge.

The nature of The Will To Live’s aesthetic is not coincidental, following Titus’ belated tenth anniversary celebrations of their landmark sophomore outing The Monitor late last year. Stickles has infamously had a conflicted relationship with it; to many fans it's the obvious magnum opus, to Sickles it's the record that’s often overshadowed his other work. Yet while he sardonically refers to the album's reissue and subsequent tour as the nostalgia cash-in, it did not come without its own positives or ulterior motives. “I wanted to mobilize the base,” he explains, giving the people what they want, reminding them of their old love for Titus, and then coming back swinging with an album that could rival the achievements of The Monitor and the band's fourth LP, 2015's The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Something with the goods. Not just Ultimate Rock, but the ultimate Titus Andronicus album.

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