Since Bob Boilen championed Protomartyr in 2014 as the band where your drunk uncle gets to complain about politics, they haven’t had an easy time shirking the description. But, it isn’t like they tried. When the news is just as sad and unwavering as ever, the band’s formula continues to soundtrack our times just fine. From lyrics to demeanor, everything about frontman Joe Casey sounds like the ravings of a dive bar regular, right down to the tattered suit jacket he wears onstage. Relatives in Descent is just as politically jaded and tough as previous Protomartyr records, and they've shown maturity in switching to a major label without sacrificing any of their grit.
2014’s Under Color of Official Right was largely about corruption in the state of Michigan, but Relatives In Descent packs as much content into each song as possible. Within ‘A Private Understanding’ alone, there’s talk of Elvis’ final days, lead-poisoning by snide men in Flint, and Heraclitus the Obscure, a philosopher who cried endlessly about the awful state of the world. ‘Here Is the Thing’ is even more saturated in lyrics that require a Wikipedia search at every turn. If punk rock was originally intended to inflame and inform the underserved masses, Protomartyr haven’t fallen off the mark; just be sure to keep an encyclopaedia next to your headphones.
A particularly newsworthy piece is ‘Windsor Hum’, which is a story about a Canadian city that’s just as harrowing as Greg Ahee’s guitar tones. Almost all 210,000 in the city are affected by a low-humming that causes everything from nausea to howling, anxiety-ridden pets. Canadians have all but run out of choices in trying to alleviate the 35hz sound. It’s nearly been confirmed to be coming from a US Steel Plant on nearby Zug Island, but the absence of a cross-border treaty on noise exacerbates the situation. The track serves as the record’s bleakest moment, and Protomartyr soundtrack Windsor’s plight with a razor sharp edge.
Casey attempts to laugh all this off. “How I wish there was a better ending to this joke,” he mumbles on ‘The Chuckler’. Like a Hail to the Thief-era Thom Yorke, Casey is simultaneously angry and complacent about the “clouds of poison in the sky and poison in the soil.” It’s a sympathetic moment since most people can’t help but laugh at the incessant bad news streaming out of the television.
It’s not all lost. Albeit through violent means, the people knock down the ivory towers of politics and corruption on ‘Up the Tower’, where an angry mob defenestrates a king living in luxury just beyond his golden door. The story is told by a drifter who borrows a cigarette from Casey at the beginning of the tune, but this doesn’t mean the scenario is a fantasy. It’s easy to compare this move with a dreamlike future of Donald Trump’s impeachment, but it’s clear that Casey doesn’t intend to hold his poetry to any one topic. “I’m not looking forward to this interview cycle because every single time I get asked “What do you think about politics?” and I answer, our band gets tied in with all this stuff!” he told The 405.
“Sometimes I’ll remember where I got it from, and sometimes I won’t,” says Casey of his lyrical process. For Protomartyr, the band usually write the music before putting it to words. ‘Up the Tower’ sounds like people climbing a staircase, so Casey wrote about just that. ‘A Private Understanding’ is more of a musical canvass than a pop song, so Casey didn’t confine his flow to a consistent pulse. It’s not that he draws his lyrics out of a hat, it’s that Protomartyr want listeners to be able to piece together the stories themselves. Only a few clues are given to help the listener do this, like the repeated phrase “She’s just trying to reach you,” on the opening and closing tracks. As a result, it’s hard to describe Relatives in Descent as a whole. In the record’s black hole of punk rock and defeatism, the phrasing often lands poorly, but the poetry never does.
Even the songs that are musically less compelling have a radiance to their words. “And I’ll be spitting on the living till I get my cross of Connemara stone,” goes ‘Caitriona’; hardly a lyric goes by where I’m not fascinated by the band’s ramblings. Connemara is a stone found in West Ireland that Oscar Wilde once dubbed “a savage beauty.” Although it was probably unintended, Joe Casey ended up summing up his band in one bizarre reference.
Almost all shortcomings are forgiven simply on the grounds that I’ve already invested dozens of hours into this band. If I’d not heard them before, I’m sure I’d be head over heels for Relatives in Descent. Whether or not this reviewer has burned them out, there’s still plenty of innovation even without the lyrics. ‘A Private Understanding’ is the sound of such a tight group of guys, it’s gratifying to remember how they've always been this good.
That being said, it’s far from perfect. Under Color of Official Right contained a very wide dynamic range, usually within the course of one song. Songs tended to go from quiet to loud, or loud to “wow I didn’t know this could get louder.” This phenomenon can only be found in a couple places on Relatives in Descent, even though Casey’s lyrics are more fascinating than ever.
“I could write about my love life or the mundane today, but then the world news comes and it’s much darker and much more serious than your day to day existence, and you’re just trying to get through the day,” Casey told The 405. Such is a perfect assemblage of the general Protomartyr fan. We try to make our own lives better on a daily basis, but are constantly overcome with terrifying people and stories. The best many of us can do is make it to the next day, and borrowing from Casey’s encyclopedic brain is alleviating to that process. If not on a visceral level, then at the very least on an artistic and enlightening one, Relatives in Descent, right down to its title, is an enigma of free thought and aggressive, yet powerful sentiment.