Protomartyr’s portrait of a city in transit
Mike Donovan | Friday, October 6, 2017
Walk with me. Follow me to the heart of “Gilbertopia.” It’s post-apocalyptic, but not in science-fiction sort of way. As we walk down its streets, we don’t feel Big Brother’s malevolent eye, experience the untapped wrath of artificial intelligence or witness violent pockets of anarchy. Instead, we find hip restaurants, packed to the brim with young, dedicated professionals. We see families strolling past rows of shimmering retail stores, both corporate and local. We hear teenagers locked in intense pickup basketball games on a pristine collection of outdoor courts. It looks good because it is good.
We also know there’s a hegemon working behind the scenes — a billionaire CEO who, with a massive capital investment brought jobs, prosperity and hope to this once struggling area. If we look around, we see the name of his company (one we recognize from countless, well executed mortgage ads) on almost every corner. Nobody seems to mind this, nor should they. Before them stands a testament to a brand of capitalism many radicals never consider — one that’s ethical, altruistic and invigorating.
Then, we leave the heart of “Gilbertopia,” head towards the outskirts where grim reality strikes hard and fast. Hope still exists out here, but it’s less obvious. It ebbs and flows, waxing in some pockets and waning in others. Out here, beyond the hegemon’s reach, communities seek prosperity with guerrilla tactics. Locals run non-profit initiatives designed to channel the limited community resources into a cohesive plan to educate residents and put them on a path to financial self-sufficiency. If they make any progress, it’s incremental.
Welcome to Detroit, or at least Protomartyr’s version of it, crafted over the course of four LPs and culminating in this year’s “Relatives in Descent.” The city, of course, has changed since the band’s first record, 2012’s “No Passion All Technique.” Back then, Detroit displayed tonal consistency, tailor-made for a post-punk resurgence. Singer Joe Casey’s searing deadpan, guitarist Greg Ahee’s aimless distortion and drummer Alex Leonard’s brutalist rhythms emanated naturally, like the bleak colors, from the dead city’s city’s corpse. But, since then, parts of Detroit (thanks to the efforts of Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert) have witnessed glorious resurrections. Still, others lie in dormancy. The city, once dead, is now more of a half-resurrected zombie.
On their latest LP — “Relatives in Descent” — Casey and company explore the rapturous implications of Detroit’s resurgence. Musically, the record conveys more variety than any of Protomartyr’s previous releases. They even toy with pop structures from time to time, given a slightly relaxed definition of the pop. The intro and chorus of “Don’t Go to Anacita,” for instance sound undeniably catchy. Likewise, the last minute of “A Private Understanding” could find home on a National record.
These moments of harmony address what Casey calls — in the far less melodious “Here is the Thing” — Detroit’s “air horn age.” It’s an age in which only an unassuming downtown socialite who “pull[s] cork, snor[es] all day, / w[akes] up in the stadium district” hears the horns and revels in their glory, while other less fortunate individuals can only see “the innovative thievery in [downtown’s] parking structures / landing least of the horrors.” Casey sardonically assumes the perspective of those on the losing end. “From foot to gut – come on stone – quicken stone,” he sing-talks, jabbing the company responsible for downtown’s resurgence, and perhaps the adverse effects of gentrification, with a sly rhyme.
Out of respect for the majority of Detroiters who live outside “Gilbertopia,” Protomartyr devotes most of their record, lyrically and musically, to the awkward mix of hope and despair in which these people live. The songs, much like the city, blur fiction and fact. If, in one moment, Casey speaks of “a marble emperor / defenestrate the king,” conjuring images of fantasia, then his next lines about “the howling waves of people / crashing through the first blockade” will return the listener to the streets. Similarly, the instrumentalists offset the uplifting musicality with equal dissonance.
Protomartyr’s finest work, however, occurs between the emotional peaks and valleys in the long moments of thematic neutrality that run through the record. These sections capture “[t]he sound you’re hearing across the river / saying, ‘everything’s fine,’” a droning symptom of affluent Detroit’s desensitization and of complacency.
Yes, Detroit is no longer a dead city. Yes, Dan Gilbert’s contribution to the city is good — indispensable in fact. But, these facts aren’t enough. We need to play the horns for those beyond “Gilbertopia,” by joining their grassroots wagers for hope. The current dissonance, though vaguely interesting to a nihilist, is no substitute for the moving vigor of a glowing harmony.