Music Reviews

The Pugnacious Poetry of Protomartyr

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Genre: Post-Punk

Favorite tracks: “Processed By The Boys,” “The Aphorist,” “Michigan Hammers,” “Modern Business Hymns,” “Worm In Heaven”

10 years and five albums into their career, one wonders what is left to write about Protomartyr. The poetic punks from the Motor City have been reliably churning out quality records full of heavy and heady material since their debut in 2012. In some ways the band’s latest record, ULTIMATE SUCCESS TODAY, may feel like just another chapter in the same book, a continuation of a formula that has birthed multiple excellent releases and plenty of warranted accolades in recent years. But as is usually the case with this band, there is more to the album than initially meets the ears. ULTIMATE SUCCESS TODAY is an album perfectly suited for the backwards, demented world we find ourselves living in, a punishing and vitriolic record with a literary flair, an album that paces itself meticulously and acutely in order to deliver its messages with maximum impact. It just might be the best Protomartyr record yet.

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In the interviews leading up to the release of the album, frontman Joe Casey said that the album represents a “possible valediction of some confusingly loud five-act play,” a culmination of their discography to date. In keeping with this theme, the first words we hear Casey utter on the record are in direct reference to the closing lines of their previous release. Where “Half Sister,” the final track of RELATIVES IN DESCENT, ended with the mantra “She is trying to reach you / Trying to reach you,” “Day Without End” opens the album with the lines “I could not be reached / no matter how / many times she repeats.” The song is foreboding and anxious, dominated by incessant rattling hi-hats and eerie saxophone flourishes, a classic example of a track that builds and builds and never releases the latent tension that it accumulates. It is a fatalistic opening that whips the listener into a heightened emotional state, the perfect primer for the record that is to follow.

From here the band quickly pivot into the album’s lead single, the punchy and political “Processed By The Boys,” a viciously tongue-in-cheek attack on the American police state that feels as prescient as anything Protomartyr has ever released. Casey begins the song wondering aloud what “the ending” might look like before concluding with the lines “No, none of that / Rolling in your heads / Reality has a far duller edge / Everybody’s hunted with a smile / Being processed by the boys.” Musically, it’s the first song to truly tip the album’s hand after the somewhat divergent opener. While Protomartyr has never been afraid to get noisy in the past, some of the instrumentals on ULTIMATE SUCCESS TODAY are heavier than any they’ve released before, harnessing a sonic heft and completeness that lends their songs an unmistakable rage and derision. This dynamic is immensely gratifying while also providing an ever more effective contrast for the album’s quieter passages. Perhaps no song on the album embodies this overt heaviness as well as the third track, “I Am You Now,” which first slyly reveals its riffs in the bass before switching hands to intensely overdriven guitars, verging on thrash metal while Casey twists and distorts Bible verses with blasphemous glee.

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There isn’t a single track on ULTIMATE SUCCESS TODAY that doesn’t provide lyrical highlights. “The Aphorist” begins with one of the most plainly arresting stanzas of Joe Casey’s career: “We’re all mowing esoteric patterns in the grass / A fast and fading echo of ancient Nazca man / Who carved his lines upon the desert floor / In hopes to catch the eye of some forgotten god / To delight a passing thunderbird / Or win patronage of a sky jaguar knit of stars.” The song also includes a wonderfully barbed shot at Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen in the lines “There’s the failed lawyer haunting teen punk shows / He’ll explain his top five for ‘09 and what to eat / But if you saw his bald skull head / You’d be certain he’s been dead for weeks”; the lines were so well-aimed that Cohen had no choice but to take to Twitter and raise his version of the white flag of surrender. “Michigan Hammers” is one of the best songs in the Protomartyr canon, a relentless runaway freight train that features an incredibly memorable middle passage, seismic chord changes throughout, and some of Casey’s most inspired lyrics to date, such as the lines “Kicking in a hole / In the sides of the brazen bull / A calf of gold / Champagne bath half-full,” or “Off the coast of Veracruz / They threw them overboard / Some made it to shore / What a hardy mule / To work without reward / Carrying the load.

Casey’s fine-point dissections of the American upper class mentality never cease to amaze, especially not on yet another Protomartyr all-timer “Modern Business Hymns.” Driven by an absolutely blistering drum performance and ferocious turbo-powered riffage, Casey unleashes one of his most incisive choruses ever, a heartshot attack at the myth of upward mobility and the farce that the so-called “American Dream” comes to life. “And if what they say is true / We’ll never make the grade / No matter what we saved / ‘Cause to those who always have it / Money is no matter / And in these hungry times / Those trapped between stations / Will forget their manners.” The song concludes with a profoundly satisfying half-time coda, a cleansing exorcism over which Casey deadpans simply “The past is full of dead men / The future is a cruelty / Resign yourself.” It somehow feels orgasmically triumphant and utterly defeated all at once, a defining moment that serves as a thematic and emotional climax for the record as a whole.

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After nine tracks of throttling energy and apocalyptic wit, ULTIMATE SUCCESS TODAY concludes with perhaps its most earnest and emotionally invested song, “Worm In Heaven.” Opening with a comparatively tranquil melodic bass line foregrounded upon a few droning clarinets, the song meditates upon the total insignificance of the individual and the unsparing nature of death. There is a quote that this song brings to mind, attributed most often to Ernest Hemingway when he said “Every man has two deaths, when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name.” Casey, singing from the perspective of someone long dead, reflects on his own station in the grand scheme of life: “I am the worm in heaven / So close to grace / Could lick it off of the bootheels / Of the blessed.” The song slowly builds in fortitude, an expertly executed slow burn that culminates in the simple desperate roar “I exist, I did / I was here, I was, or / Never never never never never never never was.” It is the sound of a disembodied voice beyond the grave on the brink of being forgotten, repeatedly pleading for just a little more time before the song ends as lives do: Abruptly, not even allowing him to finish his final cry before being overtaken by silence.

Protomartyr are heavier, more instrumentally daring, and perhaps more pointed than they’ve ever been on ULTIMATE SUCCESS TODAY. It’s an album that has only grown in estimation on repeat listens, possessing plenty of powerful instrumental hooks and riffs, a clear and direct sense of purpose and concept, and more than enough magnetic charisma on the microphone to make for an incredibly engaging 40 minute listen. I’m hard pressed to think of many other records released so far in 2020 that are as well-crafted, thoughtful, and dynamically paced. As the finishing touch to the marvelous five-act play Protomartyr has graced us with over the last decade, it serves as a more than suitable finale, an exclamation mark that serves up a healthy helping of a premiere punk act in top form, leaving listeners with the lines “So it’s time to say goodbye / I was never too keen on last words / Hope I said something good.

Jacob Martin
Unofficial Self-Appointed Merry-Go-Round Chicago Correspondent. Number 1 on last.fm in plays for John Prine and Alex Cameron.

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