Comparisons between Protomartyr and the Fall are so commonplace they’re almost trite. Almost, but not quite. Joe Casey inhabits a great many of the musico-poetic roles that listeners loved in Mark E. Smith: sarcastic ambivalence that could unexpectedly give way to sincerity, a talent for the vivid grotesque, the aura of a madman carnival barker harnessing the existential circus.
Some have said Ultimate Success Today, released in July, is the most Fall-esque of Protomartyr’s albums, and there’s something to this. Smith was very good at narrating from the point of view of the inhuman. Casey has a similar talent, seemingly granting impersonal forces a will of their own that invisibly jerk us around at their whim. Urban decline, immigration detention centers, extreme alienation, greed, preventable death – these aren’t just subject matter on Ultimate Success Today. They are, in many ways, the actual narrators. And they have things to tell us that are equal parts harrowing and compelling. And like Smith was at his best, Casey is uninterested in doing anything so boring and unsatisfying with evil as merely indicting it.
But the new album’s strengths also bring the insufficiency of the Fall-Protomartyr comparison into sharp relief. Whereas Smith’s puckish, free-wheeling nihilism led the Fall to create bizarre layered soundscapes, Protomartyr have always produced their best work through a prism that is notably sparer and slightly more orthodox rockist in outlook. Casey and company’s loyalty to the basic elements of guitar-bass-drums-vocals has led them to explore the cap between presence and absence from their own angle. The end result has always been more muscular, more un-tempered, slightly less playful and far more… American? Loath though I am to essentialize the difference between the British and USonian approaches to music, it’s an apt description.
Ultimate Success Today is very deliberate in the way it builds on this. The inclusion of brass and woodwinds is unexpected but effective. There is a clear attempt on the part of Protomartyr to plumb deeper depths, and they manage to do so without so obviously showing their work along the way. Some of this may be timing. The album was originally planned for release in May, but was delayed due to the pandemic. The band likely thought it would be over before too long, as many of us had hoped for. No such luck.
The video for the opening track, “Day Without End,” exhibits what I mean. (Protomartyr made a video for every song on the album; all of them are worth watching.) The tension in this song is patiently rendered, building up and building up. Tense guitars, menacing basslines, Jemeel Moondoc’s strained and panicked alto sax flails in the background. “This is the dawn of the day without end” croons Casey. It’s clear this is not a good thing. Bugs swarm a gas station, the nondescript urban highway sprawl easily shown as the unstable purgatory it is.
If “Day Without End” conveys encroaching doom, then “Processed By the Boys” captures the actual doom. Casey has said the lyrics are inspired by the ICE child detention centers. And there is unmistakable cruelty in the way Greg Ahee’s guitar chops and pummels its way through the song. Each violent chord feels as if it is forcibly putting an end to something, only to be followed by yet another, then another; cell doors repeatedly slamming.
Obviously the “boys” doing the processing are the ICE and border patrol agents who, as we’ve now learned, aren’t just willing to toss kids in cages (as if that weren’t bad enough) but also rampage through the streets of American cities, doling out vicious punishment to Black Lives Matter protesters. The song’s video – a darkly humorous romp played out via what looks to be a cable access game show – seems a wry comment on the aesthetics of violence: cheap hucksterism and car salesman showmanship always cover for petty cruelty.
All of this illustrates well the absurdist anxiety that builds throughout Ultimate Success… But the question of timeliness is especially prescient here. As I noted above, the band recorded these songs with the intent of releasing them in May; when the pandemic hit, they decided to delay, releasing it in late July. If anything though, this has made it timelier and more relevant. Other writers have commented on how “prophetic” this makes the album. They’re correct, of course, but I prefer to look at it from a different angle.
The Angel of History, as Benjamin tells us, always looks backward at the wreckage piling up at their feet, and it is only through those same winds that they are blown forward into the future. The violence and nihilism Protomartyr are probing here are far more resonant now with the bungling of a pandemic, an uprising against police murder and a proto-fascist backlash as part of our landscape. What makes it more prescient though is that these songs exhibit how this cruelty was never not there. It was always just waiting to come out, and in fact was the latent DNA of everyday life for god only knows how long.
It’s in this context that we should revisit the comparisons to the Fall. “From the point of view of official bourgeois culture and its categories,” Mark Fisher writes in The Weird and the Eerie, “a group like the Fall – working class and experimental, popular and modernist – could not and should not exist, and the Fall are remarkable for the way in which they draw out a cultural politics of the weird and the grotesque.”
The weird is that which should not exist but somehow does. We might consider how this definition interacts with Benjamin’s Angel. One exists on a spatial axis while the other is more temporal in nature, but both stare back in warning. They are unsettling and discomfiting, not just because they should not exist but somehow do, but because they were both us at some point, or at the very least emerge from our actions. As Fisher also reminds us, the most disturbing thing about the inhuman is that it emerges from the human.
We might again stress the difference between Protomartyr and the Fall here, and it is undoubtedly one of national origin. While the Fall came together in a Britain where the spectre of decay and decline were unavoidable, Protomartyr’s “Americanness” inheres in its own disjointedness. Until somewhat recently it was possible to insist that America was simply going through a rough patch rather than entering its own terminal decline. There are, inevitably, a great many voices who still deny this state of affairs, but more and more the reality is undeniable. And more and more, we realize it was hiding in plain sight.
Each new catastrophe of 2020 seems to emerge out of nowhere and yet be utterly predictable. We were warned that we were unprepared for Covid-19, that climate change was going to create disastrous heatwaves and growing forest fires, that the racism and state repression of this country were pointing in the direction of authoritarianism if not outright fascism. Each new event brings with it the feigned shock of news organizations, commentators, and polite liberals, labeled exceptional rather than inevitable. Thus the downward spiral renews itself.
In this respect, the violent nihilism of and dark humor of Ultimate Success Today is less prophetic than it is a way of looking into the future by way of the past and present. The music’s propulsive punchiness is at once unexpected, but as it builds through the album and becomes a pattern, you wonder how it is that you are surprised or shocked by it anymore, even as each note violently deprives you of solace.
Yes, “Michigan Hammers” is compellingly oblique in its references to industrial decline in the band’s native Detroit, but it’s also difficult to hear the song’s sneering punitiveness without thinking of the anti-lockdown protesters that stormed the Lansing capitol braying for poor people’s blood almost as soon as the rest of us started to get accustomed to quarantine. “Tranquilizer,” perhaps the least time-specific track on the album, is supposedly inspired by Casey’s own deep fears of mortality and attempts to numb that fear. Nobody who has experienced these past several months can deny that these feelings and attempts have become far more unavoidable and common. One can easily imagine the group in late June, having already made the decision to delay the album’s release, only to see its stories and moods mutated and twisted back. Rather than time leaving the album in its rearview mirror, it was catching up to these songs, their meanings amplified.
It is not until the end of the album that the narrative is able to jump into a different time, from a bad present to an even worse future. “Modern Business Hymns” is suitably dystopian, imagining an Elysium-like capitalism that can transcend planets but not its own propensity for barbarism. “The past is full of dead men,” Casey croons over panicked guitars, “the future is a cruelty. Resign yourself.”
A mere few months ago it was still possible to dismiss all this as just the bleakness of noise rock. After all, this isn’t the first Protomartyr album to tackle these themes. Hell, Protomartyr aren’t even the first post-punk band in fifty-some-odd years to do so. Now, much like Ultimate Success Today, those artists are the messengers of unheeded warnings. Warnings of dumb violence everywhere, needless suffering gleefully watched as entertainment, flagrant grifts performed out in the open, while the sounds of civilization pluck below their surface, mocking you for believing it would never let things get this bad. But it did. And now it laughs. As Casey says in the track of the same name, “I Am You Now.”