Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: The Often Eloquent, Often Hilarious Despair of Protomartyr

Dirty Shoes returns with a thorough look at the history of Protomartyr.
By    October 11, 2017


Douglas Martin has never met a Laszlo.

Joe Casey reportedly doesn’t drink as much as he used to, but his singing style can be very closely associated with how drunks communicate. As the lead singer of Protomartyr, he warbles, he bellows, he rambles, he slurs his words, sometimes when he croons. Lyrically, he is in the tradition of a few of the most incisive, emotional, and underratedly hysterical songwriters of the past couple generations: guys like David Berman and Bill Callahan; guys whom in an alternate universe or a simple change of weapon choice would have been marginally famous novelists.

I recently asked the fearless and patient editor-in-chief of this site, one of my closest friends for a decade strong, if he likes Protomartyr. He told me he listened to one song a few years back but hated Casey’s voice. I replied the first thing I scribbled in my notes was a Berman lyric: “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” As a former singer-songwriter who writes way better than he sings, maybe I have a soft spot for guys like Casey.

Can a musical outfit possess literary qualities without being lumped into the lit-hyphenate category? Unless we’re talking about music of the Rae Sremmund variety, music associated with the term “lit” usually conjures images of stuffy MFA candidates who have either based their whole steelo on Infinite Jest or that weird Victorian-obsessed couple who probably boil their bathwater.

Most of the work Protomartyr—ferried by guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson, and drummer Alex Leonard, grandson of Elmore—traffics in is that of large ballrooms with high ceilings, which is not to say they have an elegant veneer. Their souls are perched at the end of the bar, arguing with the bartender to serve them one more drink even though last call was ten minutes ago and they’re about to head to a dingy after-hours basement spot anyway. Casey’s lyrics are part and parcel to this perception of the band, obsessed with words and stories while in the thick of working class mundanity and despair instead of writing about it from an ivory tower of affluence.

There is something comically tragic (or tragically comic) about being a 40-year-old rock singer, regardless of how profound their music is, but Casey handles this quandary with verve and panache through his singular perspective and ability to find and gather wit even in the gravest of situations. A good portion of the band’s lyrics allude to Christianity, which can be a dark, dark genre. (Doesn’t really take a bible scholar to figure that one out.) Of course, so does the band’s name itself, which is, among other things, a roundabout reference to a church close to Casey’s family home in Detroit, where they attended mass pretty much every Sunday.

From what I’ve heard about Detroit, a person might need as much church as they can get to have grown up there.

For someone with a deep fascination with the character of American cities—and, to a similar degree, a specific era of its cars—it’s with a little shame I admit I’ve never been to the Motor City. I’ve gathered through secondhand accounts there was a certain period of the city’s history with a crestfallen-but-prideful demeanor which always reminded me of Tacoma, the city I’ve lived either in or extremely close to since 1998. I don’t know if this description of Detroit is actually true, and I may not ever since what Casey refers to in “Tarpeian Rock” as “smug urban settlers” with low rent statements dancing in their heads have descended upon the streets of both our cities.

I think about this idea more and more as unapologetic gentrifiers riding two-person bikes down the same street I once drove where three dudes in doo-rags stood on the corner, mean-mugging my car because they weren’t familiar with its license plate number. But I digress.

Much ado has been made of the idea of Protomartyr being a “Detroit band,” through disgraced mayors (“Bad Advice”) and underground punk quasi-landmarks (“Jumbos”). But most good creators bring the backdrop, the scenery to life in their work. The Dallas of The Outfit TX, the Los Angeles of Joan Didion, the Albuquerque of Vince Gilligan.

One of the band’s most beloved songs is about the Pope visiting Pontiac, Michigan in 1987, the second most famous thing to happen there that year. It will forever be eclipsed by Wrestlemania III.

There are glimpses of the Protomartyr existing today within the grooves of No Passion, All Technique. Casey’s wry sense of humor (as if the album title weren’t a giveaway), the allusions to the Detroit he’s spent his life dwelling, the off-kilter post-punk pulsating through a few of its songs. But it’s also a little dirtier, a little more like somebody spiked the punch bowl used to blend their influences and collective personality.

Most of the album sounds closer in kin to the belligerently fun Tyvek (Kevin Boyer at this point in Protomartyr’s tenure was a card-carrying member of both groups) than the black-clad bands the quartet are compared to now. Par for the course for bands who put out releases on Urinal Cake Records. “Machinist Man” is the sound of a garage full of punks snowballing downhill. “Jumbos” is as woozy and anthemic on record as it is as a perennial live set closer.

The world of No Passion, All Technique is filled with outlaws, auto laborers, people reproducing “just like feral cats,” two women fighting over a bottle of wine, another pulling drugs from a tree. There are more jewels than space on a finger. Ghosts don’t haunt the living rooms of the living, they sit in their favorite chair, surrounded by books, smoking from a pipe. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is reimagined as an SST split-single highlight. No Passion, All Technique is a collection of lost souls trying their best to not trip and fall into evil, a limited press of short stories forgotten on the floor of some basement venue’s green room, a few feet away from dried up piss in the corner.

This may be considered sacrilege in the hearts of Protomartyr disciples, but I’ve always felt Under Color of Official Right was Protomartyr’s least interesting album musically. Lyrically, it’s as immersive, humorous, and poignant as any anthology of words written in Casey’s notebook. There are images of beautiful people falling down stairs and poisoned bodies of water, being seated in front of humanoids (R.I.P. Bobby), Dante’s Inferno’s sons of Dis and Hangover Square’s dead moods, the eternally bemused expression on the face of Judge Mathis.

“Violent,” the album’s emotional centerpiece, reflects on the attraction to violence many of us hold either at the back or forefront of our consciousness. An infamous outlaw fires rounds into someone for having the audacity to snore while they sleep, a man poisons his wife while she reads stories to their child about dogs eating their young. Occasionally, especially in these horrific times, it seems like we’re all moths to the flame of violence, as attracted to it as we are disgusted by it. Sometimes it feels as though violence is the only thing humans truly respond to.

Of course, Under Color is not all traced according to standard post-punk template. “Want Remover,” the song with the Judge Mathis line, is bold and muscular. With a change of personnel, “Scum” and “Pagans” could have easily been mid-period Vivian Girls barnburners. The explosion of guitars which divides the halves of “What the Wall Said” is one of the most thrilling moments on the album. So even as the album is the least interesting in the catalog of Protomartyr, it’s still in the top percentile of rock records shipped to retailers in 2014.

“The Devil in His Youth,” the first track on Agent Intellect is the most stunning opening track in the group’s discography, particularly because their albums are usually super fucking backloaded. With its melodic and foreboding opening guitar lick graduating into pummeling gravity, the song is a trenchant look how privilege leads to entitlement and, ultimately, manipulation and outright malice. When the women or other races didn’t give the boy the attention he thought he deserved, he grew up into a scornful and bitter man, using his privilege to grind down all those around him. “You’ll hurt the way I do,” Casey sings.

It is a harrowing song not about just one man, but many of a certain type of social charter, who have been set up by society for centuries—millennia, even—to have an advantage over every other type of person in the world, yet view themselves as the underdog.

“Social pressures exist,” Casey sings on “Cowards Starve,” “And if you think about them all of the time / You’re gonna find that your head’s been kicked in / You’re gonna do it all for the grind.”

“I Forgive You” is a tumble through stream-of-consciousness, a chemistry teacher’s elaborate notes about the boys he would later molest, MacGuffin’s and JAMS, the eyes of Joumana Kayrouz peering at you from virtually every billboard in Detroit. It’s as madcap as Protomartyr gets, and madcap is a good look on them. “Boyce or Boice” articulates the speculative fear generated by two religious devices, demons summoned by Satan to screw around with electronic equipment.

“Boyce or Boice” musically feels like descending down the hole Casey sings about in the chorus of the song, especially after the time signature switch towards the end of the song. “The Hermit” is a scary late-night drive through the woods, while “Why Does It Shake?” feels like a similar pass down an open highway, barging through the lines separating lanes with its live-forever refrain of, “I’m never gonna lose it, never gonna lose it.”

The Agent Intellect is an album-length lament of the world darkening around us, the evil which lurks behind those places we can’t see past. The feasts we celebrate for the martyrs which named us are only a reminder that we too will die. Even the album’s sweetest ballad (and that of the band’s complete body of work) is a love letter from a dead man to a woman with Alzheimer’s.

The underlying theme of the album is that the end comes for us all. Whatever we do, we have that voice in the back of our head, saying, “That’s not going to save you, man.” If that inspires fear or apprehension or resentment inside of you, you’re not prepared for the inevitable darkness ahead. Nothing is going to save us, and if it does, it’s only temporary. Everything is temporary; we’re all eventually swallowed by the darkness. I take solace in this declaration.

The opening and closing refrain of Relatives in Descent are the same: “She’s just trying to reach you.” It sounds a lot like the pronoun signifies the concept of truth, which is described as an unforgiving half-sister in its closing number. The final verse of “Half-Sister” is about a horse in Northern Michigan which gets struck by lightning and is subsequently able to speak in an undetermined language. Its final words were revealed before getting shot behind a shed: “Humans are no good.”

“A Private Understanding” features truth through the eyes of Elvis Presley, the infamous story of his religious experience in Flagstaff where he saw the face of Joseph Stalin and then Jesus Christ. He was found dead on the bathroom floor before articulating that truth. Both lyrically and musically, the song possesses an encroaching darkness before shit hits the fan and truth tries to find these dwellers even after it’s too late.

“My Children” and “Caitriona” are companion pieces of sorts as well. The former crests while the latter stomps. The former with the lines, “My children / I never loved them / Why feel that way when their existence is my business?” That song explores this often-unspoken notion of the concept of fatherhood having a vague hint of selfishness. While mothers, whether they’re caring individuals after term or not, have a symbiotic, physical bond with their children for months, many fathers mostly think about legacy and vanity, or as Casey puts it, “feral vessels of my self-interest.”

The latter of the two songs finds a woman complaining the days away on her final resting place about her deadbeat children, putting her in a cheap plot to save a few bucks, one of which doing so “To save money / For his plain wife / My stupid son never grasped the finer points of life.”

A man with nothing to give to his children, least of all respect, and a woman who gave everything just to spend eternity in a dress that’s not even the one she wanted to be buried in. Every aspect of life reveals a cosmic joke of some sort, and Casey has a unique talent for being in on it.

From Ghee’s skyward, jagged guitars on “My Children” to Leonard’s pulsating drums on “The Chuckler” and its ending enveloped in noise, the dark squall of “Windsor Hum” to the twilit synths of “Night-Blooming Cereus,” there is a musical adventurousness on Relatives in Descent continued from The Agent Intellect, continuing the incremental evolution of Protomartyr as a true American original. The first two albums were spent trying to figure it out, their third and fourth capturing their essence but not resting on their laurels, set on challenging themselves.

“Up the Tower” rises like water in a flooding basement as does “the howling waves of people, crashing through the first blockade” in a violent uprising. Amidst “war and rumors of war” on “The Chuckler,” Casey’s protagonist asks a telemarketer about the weather and his life. In “Male Plague,” a spiritual cousin of “The Devil in His Youth,” Casey barks, “Every boy wants to be a cop.”

But there is a message in “Night-Blooming Cereus” which dispels the notion of Protomartyr’s reputation for being gloomy and desparing: “Only in darkness does the flower take hold / It blooms at night.” As human beings, we are mostly worried and preoccupied by the night hours, the loneliness of the morning’s small hours, the vile things which happen while the moon is shrouded by clouds. The darkness, however, allows beauty to grow, to take its full shape.

Protomartyr has found beauty, humor, strength, and the fascinating nature of the human condition through their four full-length albums, and most of that has been through the fulcrum of darkness. The barely lit corner of the bar where someone is trying in vain to get one more drink after last call is where profundity sometimes lies.

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