Protomartyr Is Just Trying to Reach You

Going down a YouTube rabbit hole and pondering the role of shared understanding in life, art, and Relatives in Descent.

In preparing to write about the Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr’s fourth full-length record, Relatives in Descent, I made some coffee, ate some snacks, and logged on to the net. In life, you’re never more than a few clicks away from a comments section, and I soon found myself reading the one beneath the YouTube video for Protomartyr’s new single.

There are pretty much no similarities between my first and second listen to the song and MonroeCannon’s…which isn’t to say I’m unfamiliar with these details. My first boss was a self-proclaimed “good drunk driver” and drank Zima out of a 24 oz. coffee cup all day long as we drove around selling newspapers. (Mostly, people didn’t want them, so we “delivered” them to a trash can.) Walmart is a great place to park a car indefinitely, as many touring musicians know. And, yes, perhaps to my mother’s chagrin, I have caught a buzz. But I’ve never caught a buzz in a Walmart parking lot. I’ve never even been in an orange Jeep Wrangler, and that’s a feature of MonroeCannon’s reality that I’m just full-blown jealous of.

So: How can I articulate that, reading this, I still relate to MonroeCannon? How to responsibly post “same,” while sharing nothing concrete with MC’s experience? Not for nothin’, but this Protomartyr single that MonroeCannon and I have both listened to in completely different and very specific circumstances is called “A Private Understanding.” Protomartyr’s own unflinching specificity throughout their album is what I think creates and incites a feeling of real interaction among listeners like MonroeCannon and me.

The record is tense with dark themes, where a singular voice, the emissary of their acerbic message, points at a world made up of lies and fear. On “The Chuckler,” I found myself snagged on so many phrases that I had no frame of reference for, but an instant apprehension of— I am not saying I knew what they meant at all. I’m saying that I knew myself in relationship to the song: how to interact, bop my head, and laugh/appreciate a snarl or lethargy in the vocal delivery. In math, two plus two equals four, but in the equation of a person plus a song, there are no such certain resolutions to the relationship. Some lyrics from “The Chuckler:”

War, and rumors of war
Clouds of poison in the sky and poison in the soil

In that last line, the Detroit band refers to what I interpret to be Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, echoing another potential reference on “A Private Understanding:”

The river doesn’t move, it doesn’t flow
It’s been leaded by snider men to make profit from the poor

Protomartyr use dissonance like a weapon, musically and lyrically, to assault your expectation of resolution. The lyric that sticks in me the most, “She’s just trying to reach you,” appears on the first and last tracks. I relate to reaching, and to feeling unreachable. But I don’t know what it’s like to be unable to drink the water from my sink. We can sit with the differences in our experiences, be uncomfortable, and feel tension. Protomartyr reminds me of that option. Maybe the experience we actually share is within the awkwardness of that difference.

This, strangely, reminds me of when, in eighth grade, a friend drew a picture of a clam that had facial hair, and their mom asked, “Now, what kind of clam has a beard?!” An awkward moment of misunderstanding, to be sure. We laughed. (Mom is kind of the OG “she” who is “just trying to reach you.”)

Understanding has been a collective concern for a minute now. In the past year, musicians like the War on Drugs (on their August 2017 record A Deeper Understanding) and Luke Temple (in his Nov 2016 song “The Masterpiece is Broken”) have searched for understanding among and between people. It’s indicative of a wend in the music community: I’ve felt a doubling down on the idea of being among one another, and of community itself, with organizations like Bandcamp donating their proceeds to Planned Parenthood, and numerous compilations and shows benefiting disaster relief. It’s hard, however, to know what relief, monetary or emotional, actually reaches the beneficiaries of these benefit shows. While I’ve shared in these efforts and played on these bills, I have no idea what it was like to be in Mexico, Houston, Florida, the Caribbean, or Puerto Rico in the last month. A feeling of resolution can land anywhere on a spectrum of understanding, and sometimes it’s within reach, but not always. That fact reminds me of an Audre Lorde quote: “Without community, there is no liberation…but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”

Another 2016 track, Solange’s “F.U.B.U.,” highlights that understanding is, at times, unshared—and, that unshared understanding is not necessarily something to feel bad about:

Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along
Just be glad you got the whole wide world
This us
This shit is from us
Some shit you can’t touch

Some things are “from,” not “to,” or “for.” Not for the purpose of exclusion, but of specificity—to appreciate exact experiences and the unique shape an individual makes in the world. A listener’s goal can be—if there even needs to be one—not a total embodiment of communicated truths, but an interaction with what Wittgenstein calls “the way music speaks. Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” Music can be for you or to you, but it also might be right next to you: a companion to human experience, rather than a supplement for it.

There need not be any specific resolution to a human’s interaction with human-made art. Expression can involve control, but I don’t think that’s the ultimate goal. Expression is often part of an interaction. This brings us back to Protomartyr, and to YouTube:

This very specific expression is from the comments on Protomartyr’s Tiny Desk Concert. “Why does it shake? The body, the body, the body” are lyrics from their 2015 record The Agent Intellect; the “HELL YES” is a subschool5 original. It’s stirring that, in listening to the song, subschool5 is not reminded of the Talking Heads, the Strokes, or the Fall, like the other commenters here are, but of a janitor who not only janits, but graduates! In their interaction with the music, subschool5 is feeling themselves, and I am digging that with two shovels.

On the tenth track, “Male Plague,” multiple voices join together for one of the only refrains on Relatives in Descent not sung by Casey alone. The baritone voices belting “male plague” are different from my voice, but my enjoyment of and participation in the experience is not diminished. Good shit can transcend tribalism and the need to be constantly affirmed, and distill human experiences into those things that we all share like love, pain, growing, getting older, and, inevitably, dying. I know the world is overpopulated and we’re all running out of data, but I think there will always be room for someone who is feeling themselves.

On the most vulnerable song on Relatives in Decent, “Night-Blooming Cereus,” frontman Joe Casey nearly croons:

On a desolate edge, amid the death of all things
Not under the scornful eye or the corporation’s hand
Only in darkness does the flower take hold
It blooms at night

A song I listened to earlier that day pops in my head, when I heard Tyler the Creator sing, “I rock, I roll, I bloom, I grow.”

It’s necessary, outside of enjoyment, to follow leads that aren’t of our own design. I hear a lot of people pulling from the same thematic fabric, but it doesn’t feel like an echo chamber. I hear Protomartyr, and I hear the War on Drugs, Tyler the Creator, Luke Temple, and Solange. I hear my friend and their mom both saying “bearded clam,” but meaning it in completely different ways. I’m laughing right now, and I hope, hope you are, too—at resolutions we weren’t expecting. Being led in completely different, sincere, and unexpected directions, is what endears story to memory. The interaction is the experience—is the story—which is not about achieving a predestined resolution to a musical interaction.

From their first release in 2012 on Urinal Cake Records to this, their Domino debut, Protomartyr are not blunting their stylistic weapons of choice: dissonance, post-punk beats, one voice. In the face of growing popularity, they are only refining the figure they cut, and their deft wielding of sharp edges makes for deeper injections of understanding. Relatives in Descent doesn’t seem like it’s “to” or “for” me, but I enjoyed interacting with where it’s coming from, and where others were coming from when they listened to it, too. I can’t say I came up with the idea of posting on YouTube while drinking in a car, but it’s starting to sound like a good one. (Thankfully, I don’t live anywhere near a Walmart, so we can table that potential setting for now.) I’m going to head down to the comments section with MonroeCannon and crack open a cold one, just to see what it’s all about. All the boys down there really seem to be having a good time—some quality interaction—and I can appreciate that. You feel me?

Jen Goma is a writer and performer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. A self-propelled multi-media artist, Goma produces work under the name Showtime Goma and is a member of the bands A Sunny Day in Glasgow and Roman à Clef, and has performed and made records with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Jherek Bischoff.