Protomartyr’s main draw has always been frontman Joe Casey. With all due respect to Greg Ahee’s wonderfully oblique guitarwork, Casey’s gruff sneer and erudite lyrics are what really set the Detroit post-punk band apart from their contemporaries. He kicks off their latest record, Ultimate Success Today, with a doom-laden declaration: “This is the dawning of the day without end.” It’s a tone-setter that, of course, feels especially apt in the midst of a global pandemic whose indeterminate endpoint is perhaps its most frightening aspect. In an interview with The Fader, Casey offered a useful counter to the notion that his songs often feel prescient: “I often say that if you want to be a psychic, just write about what’s happening today … When it happens again, people will say, ‘Oh my, how did you know?’” His ostensible “prescience” is never more evident than on “Processed By The Boys,” a treatise railing against the horrors of living under a police state. The song resonates deeply in a moment defined by months of sustained Black Lives Matter protests, but, just as “Day Without End” was conceived pre-COVID, it was actually written long before the inciting murders. This sort of circularity speaks precisely to the sentiment of a “day without end,” an interminable stagnation, where nothing truly changes and there’s no relief in sight. References to a modern surveillance state position the song firmly in the 21st century, but its haunting refrain (“Everybody’s hunted with a smile / Being processed by the boys”) would be just as appropriate 50 years ago.
Their fifth in a run of excellent records, Protomartyr aren’t stepping far outside their usual box here, but Ultimate Success Today does toy with a few new ideas. The most conspicuous musical change is the addition of a wind and string section. The difference can be subtle — if one isn’t paying close attention, the soft gurgle of a bass clarinet might be mistaken for a synth — but it ultimately pays off; there’s an aura of grandness to this record, one no doubt accentuated by the rich arrangements, as well as the warm, expansive production choices of producer David Tolomei. Probably their most notable orchestral moment comes on the labor movement anthem “Michigan Hammers.” Twice the song breaks down into beautiful, shimmering drones courtesy of the saxophones and cello; the bridge is especially stirring, with Ahee’s glittering guitar joining the mix as Casey pays homage to an obscure moment in the Mexican-American war where a contingent of pack mules were thrown overboard and left to drown (“What a hardy mule / To work without reward / Carrying the load / ‘Till they drop amongst the stones”). Ultimate Success Today is an appropriately bleak assessment of contemporary America, probably best summed up by a question posed on “Processed By The Boys”: “When the ending comes is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyes animal?” No, he later responds, “Reality has a far duller edge.” But the band still manages to end on a note of hope, albeit a somewhat perverse one. “It’s time to say goodbye,” Casey begins on “Worm In Heaven,” with a soft bed of woodwinds supporting his “last words.” At first, he seems to be clinging desperately to the tangibility of his existence (“I exist, I did / I was here, I was”), before giving in to the reality of his own demise, closing out with a string of negations (“Never never never never never never never was”). Nihilistic as this may sound, the song actually feels rather at peace with itself. There is a tranquility in remembering that, despite the interminable day that we appear to be living through, we do all have an end, and that ultimately we will all be nothing.
Published as part of Ledger Line | Q3 2020 Issue – Part 1.