1. The Sound
Midway through Protomartyr’s new album Relatives in Descent, a song opens with a guitar figure that rings like the alarm bells at a railroad crossing. The drums roll in, then the bass. “The sound,” Joe Casey sings once, twice, then a third time: “The sound/ that you’re hearin’/ across the river/ saying ‘Everything’s fine.'” It isn’t, though. Of course, it isn’t.
The river is the Detroit River separating the United States from Canada and the sound is the title of the song, the “Windsor Hum”, named for the Canadian city. And it’s real. According to a recent study, however, it doesn’t originate from Windsor. Most likely it emanates from a blast furnace on Zug Island, near the Rouge River’s confluence with the Detroit River on the US side. “Some [residents] described the Hum as…the sound of a bass speaker in a passing car,” reads a 2014 article in The Windsorite, “while others would hear a charging freight train barreling down on them.”
As the song continues, Casey tweaks the first verse, adding that the hum seeps into your “brain pan”. After a squall of distortion, he tweaks the verse again, sending the sound “across the ocean”.
Then, for eight seconds of jangling guitars and syncopation, Protomartyr becomes Afghan Whigs. The move cuts the song in half, and Casey lets loose —
What you’re given
What you’ll never have…'”
— adding, after a second go-round, “And never will.”
This is the voice of the American spectacle, economics edition, the part of the Venn diagram where consumer psychologists feed their knowledge to corporations that get massive tax breaks from cities that might as well have billboards on their inbound highways and at their airports advertising “USED HUMAN CAPITAL FOR SALE!” The Windsor Hum of capitalism is so pervasive that we don’t hear it anymore, though we live by it, hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck.
It’s a suitably big and urgent moment in the song. When Casey sings “Never will”, there’s a desperation in his voice. The language is broad enough and his voice elegiac enough that you could take the meaning to be existential, universal: the Western condition! But then the band settles down. Greg Ahee’s guitar rings emptily. Alex Leonard, on drums, quietly plays a busy pattern. “The ol’/ Windsor humming/ ‘cross the river/ From the U.S. of A.” Casey sings softly, finally naming the source. The guitar picks up a little. Casey starts to repeat the last line: “From U.S. of…”—and as a gate of distorted guitar slams down, the “A” falls out of Casey’s mouth, as if someone shoved him in the chest just as the syllable emerged.
He regains his balance, snarling sardonically as the Hum itself: “Everything’s fine.”
2. At the End of the World
Relatives in Descent is, musically, a more contemplative and less full-throttle Protomartyr album than the three which precede it. I almost wrote “intellectual”, which in some circles — (some) punk, pop country, the Republican party — is an insult, but the thing with Protomartyr is that while its songs are thoughtful and smart, moments of knowledge and revelation are never presented as victories. They have no social effect, no obvious private effect.
Casey frequently refers to concepts, for instance. Places and names from antiquity. In “A Private Understanding”, the opener of Relatives in Descent, he compares himself to Heraclitus the Obscure, who wrote that a thing may stay what it is by changing. If you think this is just some smart-guy posturing, congratulations, you’re on the side that’s winning—and that’s the point. These are not even Pyrrhic victories. As much as these antique nuggets are metaphorical and narrative structures for Casey’s lyrics, the way he positions and sings them betrays that today they have no special meaning in the great contemporary soup of information even if they should happen to float to the top.
If every American artist tells their version of the American story whether they intend to or not, Protomartyr’s version begins at the end. It’s the point in history recently described by the eclectic pop musician Grimes when she defined her new genre “fae” a new aesthetic ideology, really: “The fae are the children living at the end of the world, who make art that reflects what it’s like to live knowing the earth may not sustain humanity much longer.”
In the ’70s this ideology was called punk rock. Like their predecessors, Protomartyr doesn’t possess much confidence about the future. Most of their songs take place in an alienated, industrial present in which the contradictions of wealth, education, healthcare, gender, etc. are even greater than they were in 1978. The key difference, though, is that in punk you could hear the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, its birth in the ’50s, and in hearing that you could hear a longer history of the United States. In Protomartyr’s music, that history doesn’t exist. There’s no glorious origin. There was never any promise of freedom or equality. The country was founded on competitions for power, if it was ever founded at all.
On Relatives in Descent, you can’t really even hear punk as a genre. (Or, to a lesser extent, post-punk. It’s a whisper.) But you could on the band’s lo-fi 2012 debut No Passion All Technique. Here the band sounds like the racket made by punks old enough to remember the proto-punk groove of The Pretty Things and MC5 and Rocket from the Tombs, especially on the opening five songs, from “In My Sphere” to “Free Supper”, a run broken only by “3 Swallows”, which has the melodic ramble of an early Guided By Voices song. Things take a darker turn after that. “Jumbo’s” makes a night at a bar sound like Mad Max: Fury Road. The final third of No Passion All Technique trembles with paranoia about the future, particularly on one of the album’s best songs, “Feral Cats”. The singer hides in his home like one of the non-wealthy saps in The Purge, watching as people creep through the streets at night, including “a woman in scrubs” who “pull[s] drugs straight out of a tree.” He adds, “I guess that’s just the entropy working against us.”
Punk’s negation of the future in the late ’70s matched the fear of oncoming dystopia with the self-satisfying pleasure, even joy, of watching it happen. Protomartyr’s next album, Under Color of Official Right (2014), was the last time the band sounded joyful. The conflicts of nihilistic glee and apocalyptic anxiety become more personal here, more interior, but there’s room for the heedlessness of “Ain’t So Simple” and the Neanderthal pounding of “Want Remover”, “Pagans”, and “Son of Dis”. The keys to this mixture of fear and energy are Leonard’s drumming and Scott Davidson’s bass playing, the two joined at the hip and never what you would expect. Take the song “Tarpeian Rock” and the duo’s groovy herk-and-jerk rhythm underneath Ahee’s textures and Casey’s litany of things that should be flung off a cliff like the Romans used to do. (“Adults dressed as children… text as new literature… most bands ever.”) It’s a killer dance tune, the kind of raw beat you miss these days in Arcade Fire.
When the rest of the band sounds like it’s enjoying the sacking of Rome, Casey usually doesn’t. That’s what separates him and the band’s aesthetic from ’70s punk. He sneers, but his voice is too low to recall Johnny Rotten, too stoned to remind you of Henry Rollins or D. Boon. Casey is the skeptic in the middle of this swirling rush, the pensive voice that sometimes wants to apply the brakes (“What the Wall Said”) and other times drives the band forward with his own percussive noise (the “ah ah ah ah” near the end of “What the Wall Said”). In “Maidenhead”, a dramatization of the 1941 novel Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, Casey plays the protagonist whose “dead moods” estrange him from society and himself, and whether Ahee switches between the anxious riff, clean chords, or slabs of distortion, Casey has the same distanced tone, whether he’s singing “Don’t feel nothing for anyone” or, with an edge of mockery, “I have arrived.”
Casey is often compared to Mark E. Smith of The Fall, but Smith has never sounded like he could at any moment recede into the noise of his own band. Neither has Nick Cave, another frequent critical parallel. Sure, Casey has a sort of deep voice and he throws himself into each performance, but at no point does he play with that level of theatricality, even on a song like “I’ll Take That Applause” in which he’s the egotistical rock star reveling in the audience’s attention. In a great live performance from 2015, Casey pounds his chest like he really believes it, but there’s a line that keeps popping up: “Nothing ever after”, which is another way of saying, “No future”. At the end, Casey turns the lyric into winter. Like a man whose bus has arrived, he picks his coat from the mic stand. “Thanks for having us,” he slurs, “we’re Protomartyr. Goodbye.”
That deadpan, stoic quality would come in handy as the 2016 presidential campaign slithered to its end. Protomartyr’s third album, The Agent Intellect, had come out the previous fall, but as Donald Trump lowered one bar after another in the run-up to the election, I listened to The Agent Intellect and nothing else for pretty much all of October. I would blast it in my car on the way to work, on the way home, through headphones, on my laptop, in an effort to stave off despair. This, too, shall pass, I was thinking about the worst possible scenario, which came true and is now passing like a succession of those freight trains people described as the “Windsor Hum” bearing down on them, except the trains are on fire and spraying sewage.
Page 2: A Developing, “Developed” Nation
A Developing, “Developed” Nation
The album is Protomartyr’s most concise album. Nothing is wasted. The interplay between the band had never been more precise: Ahee lays down waves of guitar over Leonard’s accented drumbeat on “Cowards Starve” and locks in with him and Davidson at the beginning of “I Forgive You” as Casey moans “Ahhhhhhhhhhh, you/ heretics, cheats” before uploading a laundry list of urban information. But it’s the words and characters and concepts that still feel like missed warnings: the suburban kid who thinks he’s being victimized in “Devil In His Youth”, the rioting crowd outside the Pope’s visit in “Pontiac 87”, the “pizza king” and the “oligarchs” in “Dope Cloud”, and, in “Boyce or Boice”, the technological demons, “The strange opinions/ From foreign lands/ Tumbling waves of complaint/from lonesome men.”
The Agent Intellect is, for me, one of those albums that glows with the eerie light of divination, the same way that some people hear Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, released on 11 September 2001 as a prophecy. (Or the way that I hear the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet from 1968, not Let It Bleed the following year, as a sign that the ’60s had already ended.) The Agent Intellect felt like a public record, a statement about everything the band had been chasing: the grimy day-to-day of American life, the nihilism and class consciousness of punk, and the stream of information and culture that’s supposed to be in hi-def but usually feels like the confetti that turns your TV image into fuzz.
Protomartyr’s story of the USA is the “Paradise Papers” of a country that officially considers itself a developed nation but in fact is developing in the wrong direction — and everyone knows it: an exposé of massive internal contradictions that surprise nobody. We know how things are, and we know they can’t last, but we can’t imagine any other way things might be.
3. A Crack in the Wall
That’s the final piece of the American puzzle in Protomartyr’s music, as I hear it, anyway: our national abandonment of thinking, knowledge, and imagination; of ideas that once mattered, philosophies once filled with potential, and the simple act of critical thinking, what Aristotle once called, in his treatise On the Soul, the “active intellect” or, alternately, the “agent intellect”.
In the middle of encroaching dissolution, Casey thinks. That is his rebellion against the Windsor Hum. (Suitably D.I.Y. Anyone can do it.) As opposed to the mere reception of information, which we might think of as pre-thinking, the active or “agent” intellect is actual thinking: the transformation of information into knowledge. No matter how much they bash and billow, most Protomartyr songs are about thinking, and if there’s any possible way to sum up those thoughts, it would be the question of how to be ethical during a slow-motion apocalypse. Is there such a thing as ethics anymore? Is there truth, or is there only power?
Relatives in Descent is the first Protomartyr album where the rumination in Casey’s lyrics are matched more often than not by pensive music. There’s less rocking, more hesitation and fragmentation. Despite Leonard’s tripping drumbeat, “A Private Understanding” opens the album with such a feeling of suspense and a tightening of pressure that you wonder where the song can possibly go. The same can be said of the beginnings of “My Children”, “Windsor Hum”, “Up the Tower”, and the entirety of “Night-Blooming Cereus”, which is as lonely and yet hopeful as the band has ever sounded. After an uncharacteristically gentle synth interlude, Casey sings, “In my own head—
Near the hole where hope drains out / And fear is branded deep
Amid the death of all things/ Not under law, or thoughts I had before
Only in darkness does the flower take hold
It blooms at night
It blooms at night
— and that is as close as I can get to naming what makes this concern with thought and ideas so affecting in Protomartyr’s music, what makes it different from other hip, heady indie bands of the day: the difficulty of thinking.
Since music is not a novel or a film, Casey relies on speaking and singing to convey this difficulty, i.e., the way he delivers the words: not quite in the recitative style of Lou Reed, but in the same ballpark. “Here Is a Thing” rambles through a list of observations about Detroit, the band’s hometown, but the words become noise and rhythm, as in this sequence: “From foot to gut/ come on, stone/ quicken stone/ pass through/ pass without pain/ take everything/ reach rock roll/ reach rock roll….” Then comes “My Children”, which begins with a creepy primal vibe before Casey starts muttering, as if off-camera, “To create/ pass on/ pass on”. A thought seems to be picking up steam, and then the tempo does. The beat locks in. “Give all, give all” says Casey, “…to my children”. Later on, “The Chuckler” seems to catch the singer already speaking to himself, as if someone just decided to switch on the mic.
Throughout Relatives in Descent, lyrics become utterances and philosophy the rambling of a stranger on the sidewalk. There’s a back and forth between intuition and speaking, between mystery and having to stake some kind of claim. “A Private Understanding” begins with Casey apologizing for the “automatic writing by phantom limb” he’s about to give us. Why bother speaking then? Why not get his shit together first, eh? Unless there’s a pressure to speak before he’s ready — the social pressure, yes, but also the relief and satisfaction of being heard, being recognized. So in this way, thought follows its own anticipation, and speech comes between them.
Casey performs the same search that we do, not as a wise man but as a fellow fool grasping for understanding and the ability to communicate that understanding in a culture of hi-def flak. “A Private Understanding” begins as a reaction to Trump-era social noise and disconnect — the automatic writing is a defense mechanism from all that, a way to “bar [the] door” — but it ends with the true story of Elvis Presley seeing the image of Joseph Stalin in a cloud one night, an image that disappoints him until it transforms into an image of God. “But he could never describe the feeling,” Casey says. “He passed away on the bathroom floor.”
It’s not as if the entire album works this way. “Don’t Go to Anacita” is a pointed and hilarious takedown of neoliberal America set in a fictional suburb where “the liberal-minded here/ they close their eyes and dream/ of technology and kombucha”. (This is the most Clash-iest of tracks Protomartyr has ever done, by the way.) Barging into the hope left by “Night-Blooming Cereus”, “Male Plague” jabs at poisonous masculinity, those “sad sacks pickled in jars”, and is carried on a killer riff. Even where there is a hint of doubt, Casey’s a bare-knuckle journalist regarding the world around him.
What is any of this worth? What can it do? The level of my optimism is about the same as Protomartyr’s, a band that named itself after Saint Stephen, who spoke his truth and then, as the band reminds us in “Feast of Stephen” on The Agent Intellect, fell asleep praying for the mob that immediately stoned him to death.
That pessimism saturates most of the final song on Relatives in Descent, “Half Sister”, an ominous narrative in which three incidents of revelation and mystery — Jesus before Pontius Pilate, a ghost appearing to her half-brother, and a talking horse — are brushed off by the people who could be changed by them. A talking horse! Poor thing doesn’t fare well. Ahee leads in with a mysterious, lovely pattern on the guitar. In what reads like a short story of American magical realism, the horse is struck by lightning and begins to speak in a “foreign language.” Ahee adds a little distortion to the figure. Casey sings:
When he was finally understood
He repeated, “Humans are no good”
So they shot him behind the shed
And stuffed him
He’s now on display
As a lesson for the kids
To always do your best
And do your best always
If we experienced an epiphany as a country, would we even care? No. We’d turn it into the same old cultural homilies. This incisive, bitter moment in the song would be enough, but for once, Casey gets declarative. Ahee returns to the two-note hangnail of a riff that’s dominated the song, Davidson echoes it on bass, holding things down when the guitars leap into a wash of noise, and Casey adds:
Truth is a colicking horse that serves no purpose
Truth is a babbling prisoner you’d rather not kill if he’ll confess
Truth is the half sister that will not be forgotten
Truth is the half sister that will not forgive
“She’s trying to reach you,” Casey sings, concluding the song and the album with the same lyrics as the end of “A Private Understanding”. It’s a sliver of optimism at the end of a song that sounds like a curse.
What Protomartyr is searching for seems like a crack in the wall of everything we take as a given, in every law that’s just a self-serving machine, in every customary thought that says “Only this is possible”. It’s too much to put on any band, any album, this weighty conclusion—but that, too, is a belief we take for granted, or just something that might have made sense about Bob Dylan, or even The Fall, but today seems ridiculous. So I’m going to do it anyway. Just to see if it’s true. Why not?
There’s a newness of thought this band and a few others are pursuing. It’s not the newness of being clever, or parody, or so help us, innovation. It’s more fundamental and radical than either. But in the same way that Casey at times speaks or sings or sing-speaks before he knows what he’s saying, this new thought can’t be known before it’s spoken. So we have to speak. We have to risk being wrong. We have to speak anyway.
If we don’t, the Windsor Hum will speak for us:
Always do your best, kids.
Protomartyr (Photo: Daniel Potete / PitchPerfect PR)