Protomartyr tell us our future.
Genres are slippery things. What felt like a horror movie from about 2016 to 2021 has given way to mere suspense. With the 2024 elections approaching, something is coming back around again.
Observe Donald Trump’s mugshot. The menacing stare, like a wolf bluffing an injury, counting on liberalism’s utter and certain ineptitude, communicating to his supporters, with the promise of climate collapse and an armed militia guarding every gated community backing him up, “this is how I win.” We watch, helplessly, as suspense gives way to horror, though this time of a more cosmic variety.
As frontman for Protomartyr, Joe Casey has always been good at homing in on these shifts. His lyrics, along with the band’s chaotic cacophony, capture a fundamental friction of modern life: on the one hand, the cruel forward plod of history; on the other, the successful repackaging of that cruelty into shiny progress. Locating the nexus of that friction can be an exacting task, but as was shown by Protomartyr’s previous effort – 2020’s Ultimate Success Today – they have an uncanny ability with it.
Compared to previous releases, Formal Growth In the Desert is a relatively stripped-down affair. Gone are the experiments with cello, viola, and woodwinds that we heard on Ultimate Success Today and the Consolations EP. There are a few faint lap-steels, but they’re mostly in the background.
Consequently, Formal Growth sounds less absurdly vicious and more just vicious. There’s a lot more empty space here, and something with far greater force and menace is coming to fill it. Simpler and stripped down, but also chillingly familiar.
That shape has never left us
So you better save the date
An invitation to the feast
We’ll be polishing the plates
Gathering up all the small things
and salt to taste
You can grieve if you wanna
But please don’t ruin the day
When Formal Growth was first released in June, depending on the headspace you were in as a listener, you might wonder whether Casey and the rest of Protomartyr were missing the mark, leaning on their old gestures and habits of pessimistic anxiety. The mistake here is that many headspaces are in the sand, disavowing so much of what has exhausted and terrified us over the past few years. Who can blame us? We’ve needed a break. It has been easy for many of us to convince ourselves that the pandemic is over, that the courts will punish the January 6th conspirators in a just and orderly manner.
And yet. Canada burns. Pakistan and Libya flood. On a long enough timeline, all of us are expendable. Some, however, seem hell-bent on speeding up the process, harnessing cosmic indifference into dividends. That’s what seems to be the theme of Formal Growth In the Desert. That the mercilessness of deep time is somehow converging with the banality of human evil. On Ultimate Success there were human faces hovering over the misery and destruction. Formal Growth sees them fade into the background, loosening the reins as something more ineffable takes over.
It's evident in the title: the progress is formal, measured on spreadsheets, but on a landscape that couldn’t care less. The concept of the desert – inhospitable, deadly, existing over eons – also shows up in one of the album’s lead singles, “Elimination Dances.” According to Casey, while speaking with Flood magazine, the lyrics struck him while on a trip to the desert, “and felt meaningless next to the ancient rock.”
This isn’t to say that the cruelty of time’s march is acting on its own. There have been plenty of reminders that deliberate sadism — the kind that revels in oncoming catastrophe — hasn’t gone anywhere. Musk. Zuckerberg. Bezos. People who enabled the unbridled insanity but somehow managed to skate by, only to play key roles in the full automation of art and leisure. Casey’s lyrics reference Zuckerberg and Musk – albeit obliquely – in “Let’s Tip the Creator.”
Oaker Ruiksleg in the triumphal car
Appreciating the beauty of outsider art
While his sycophants burn in a lithium fire
Sugar Mountain was imagining a space
Sending a link of aesthetic graves
To his array of disappointing nephews
As for Bezos, he’s less a target than a hovering presence in “Fulfillment Center,” a relatively short song (under two minutes) about two young people in love – Dismas and Dawn – unable to locate the titular Amazon warehouse. Why do they need to get there? It’s unclear. But, realizing they are trapped in someone else’s dream, their car out of gas, they sit and let themselves freeze to death. Love collides with time refusing to deliver salvation.
Casey has said himself that love is another recurring theme on Formal Growth In the Desert. Partly, this is because he found love himself (or at least claims he did) before the album’s release. This may seem drastically out of character, until one remembers that Casey’s isn’t the sappy kind of love that “conquers all.” Rather, it endures, often taking quite the beating in the process at the hands of time. Nor is it just romantic love that concerns Casey. Two of the album’s songs – “Graft vs. Host” and “The Author” – focus on the memory of his mother, who suffered from dementia before her recent death. Both songs are, appropriately, dirge-like: methodical, relatively subdued, with searing codas driven by rusty razor guitars.
Of course, our love will always be nothing next to the swirling cosmos. Considering, however, the central role it plays in humans’ best achievements, one must wonder why some are so enthusiastic about burying it beneath so much sand and stone and scrap.
Summer is over. Covid cases are rising, by some estimates to the highest level since lockdown. It all somehow sounds so much more on point, more description than warning. Perhaps it’s because the world caught up with Protomartyr. Perhaps it’s because the boogeymen in our lives never really went away. They’ve just been in the wings, practicing their dance moves.
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