Protomartyr and the Paradise Papers of a Developing Nation
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.
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