Joe Casey tells it like it is, and in the case of Protomartyr’s second LP – their first for Sub Pop JV squad Hardly Art, and also their first since their hometown of Detroit filed for bankruptcy – he’s telling it like a victim of recent history, contained and eloquent, letting his aggressions out through well-considered phrases and an extended set of nuances. He explains what it’s like to be in his band (“some sort of confrontation/between me and these three men,” he croons in “Ain’t So Simple”) in language resembling a playful treason.
He rattles off a list of people deserving classical punishment, Roman-style, flung from the cliffs of “Tarpeian Rock” (“rich crusties … adults dressed as children … neon bands on laptops … do-nothing know-it-alls … alt-weekly types” and so on, which probably makes for an extemporaneous drubbing every time they play this song live). He laments the actions of imprisoned former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in the pugilistic “Bad Advice,” locking his initial verses into the polyrhythmic gearteeth of the band as the trick unfolds and goes sour.
He’s in front of a band that makes its strongest statements rooted in both the realities of their day-to-day lives in a town that’s folded over on itself, cast to monied interests there to pick the last shreds of meat off its bones, and of speculative fictions. In some ways it’s easy to liken him to another dynamic, non-traditional singer and lyricist, Craig Finn (of Lifter Puller and the far-inferior The Hold Steady), but while Finn is so far into band mythologies about fictional characters living on some sort of druggy edge that he’ll likely never find the way out, Casey is present and in the moment; his cast of characters don’t tie into a central narrative, and his band is about more than having a good time far away from the sitter home with your kids while you neck down shitty domestics with dudebros from college.
Protomartyr had to stick the landing of their first album, 2012’s No Passion All Technique, as it was their only shot at any manner of exposure – at least as much as could be afforded a release on a label called Urinal Cake Records. With cred on loan from Tyvek’s Kevin Boyer, the band pulled off an intense trick of making a record that started out like a post-punk nothing and grew more devastating as it ground on, with its best songs in a stretch of the second side, riotous in sentiment and expulsion/explosion of noise and hook. Some are balking at the steps taken to streamline the sound of Under Color, but in this case, change is welcome; the band goes about it holistically, redeveloping how they sound but not how they play or write, in the welcoming confines of the Key Club Recording studio and the capable hands of Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins.
They’re afforded all the space they can handle on opener “Maidenhead,” Greg Ahee’s guitar ringing out through the holes in the ceiling, juxtaposing the clean channel with his spare, no-nonsense effects rack (there’s plenty of reverb here, which is a hidden condition of any Hardly Art release). “Want Remover” is a perfect example of how Protomartyr took keen advantage of their newfound opportunities: the song travels an immense distance in two minutes thirty, starting out with a barrage of quickly-strummed guitar – never repeated in the song – that pulls back to reveal a three-note melody and three-chord chorus durable enough for any classic Fall record, and forcing the listener to pay closer attention to where Casey’s words have to go.
When he barks out the title, exhaling the last syllable into its own word, the band steps it up, until a denouement that ends in a ceaselessly reverberating piano chord, dissonant and final. It’s not the only place on the record where Protomartyr inverts our expectations of what a rock or punk-minded song could be, nor is it the end of their obsession with pregnant drone to begin or end a track, but when coupled with Casey’s sci-fi tale of a device that, as stated, removes wants — could be a smartphone, could be something else — your ears squint to learn more, and you become thankful in a way that the band facilitates the power ranking of his words and delivery.
Poppier than expected, but still covered in burrs, and adeptly analyzing the pain and suffering of their city and this year’s edition of the society that judges it, Protomartyr has raised the bar high enough for any bands to follow, so high that most won’t even know it’s there. In terms of what they deliver – well-read, clever, beyond referential entanglements of tense pop in difficult spaces – they are the American-decline equivalent to the mid-Thatcher-era intellectual ennui of the June Brides, and Under Color Of Official Right is as good a rock record as anyone’s gonna make for these days.