It’s been a cruel summer. By day, oppressive heat traps us inside with no possible escape. At night, DIY fireworks sizzle and snap across cities in America, keeping us awake, our minds racing. Somehow, we’ve survived half of 2020, but we’re still separated, isolated, afraid. Time passes, but each day feels the same, like one sticky, endless loop of uncertainty — not quite the beach trips and rooftop parties of years past. So when Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey cries that there is “heat and sorrow” in his heart at the start of summer, we feel that. This year more than ever. He just gets it. He always does.
Protomartyr recorded their fifth record, Ultimate Success Today, in a former 19th century church in upstate New York well before the coronavirus pandemic. Still, the ever-astute Detroiters’ latest offering feels like a product of the times. In 2017, the band hinted at impending chaos with Relatives in Descent, predicting our current dark “age of horn blowing,” “trumpets” (presidential pun perhaps intended?) ablaze. On Ultimate Success Today, Casey and bandmates Greg Ahee, Scott Davidson, and Alex Leonard — plus a host of guest collaborators on vocals, wind, and string instruments — push things one step further, uncovering the hideous violence that drives life in America while providing little to no hope of redemption.
If that sounds dark, that’s because it is — across the record, Casey minces no words while exposing the ugly truth. On snarling first single “Processed by the Boys,” Casey bears witness to “a riot in the streets” where “everybody’s hunted with a smile.” A sharp, militaristic beat and Ahee’s searing, droning guitar burn like a hot knife, affording no solace until the track’s very end, when Casey’s voice finally quiets (“next time will be different,” he whispers, signature skepticism oozing from his pores). Considerably gentler in sound but not in impact, “The Aphorist” mourns “the fast and fading echo of a Nazca man,” a reference to the ancient and mysterious Nazca lines. In recent years, the giant geoglyphs, located in southern Peru, have been threatened by human and environmental intervention. “Narcissism is a killer,” Casey later warns. “That and no healthcare.”
It’s difficult to overstate the technical and emotional prowess of Protomartyr’s masterful rhythm section; Davidson and Leonard push and pull between smooth, seductive meditation and explosive rage with seemingly no effort at all. Their fierce, breezy synergy is particularly enticing on the aforementioned “June 21,” which opens with the same buzzing hum that accompanies summer’s blackest nights. Guest vocalist Nandi Plunkett (Half Waif) drapes a cool, delicate sheen over an otherwise heavy and hazy lament — according to Protomartyr, summertime isn’t such hot fun. More often than not, it’s sirens and cops, flashing lights, “a lonely backyard dog” singing to the moon — familiar sights and sounds, regardless of which city you live in.
June 21 marks the first full day of summer, but this year, it was also Father’s Day. Casey has said that Ultimate Success Today was inspired by the passage of time, the death of his father, and fittingly, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In the nightmarish modern epic, a father and son embark on a long and painful journey through post-apocalyptic America. Food is scarce, fear abounds, and danger lurks everywhere in the form of masked (but not the kind we’re getting used to), cannibalistic predators. The story is horrifying from start to finish, but its most human element — the love between the parent and child — is what keeps it moving forward. Together, the father and son keep going, regardless of what lies ahead.
Casey’s words have always read as wise, sardonic poetry, but perhaps the influence of McCarthy makes Ultimate Success Today Protomartyr’s most literary album yet. The tracks weave narrative threads that connect them to each other, spinning a cohesive tale of this bizarre and unknown moment in time. On the raging “Tranquilizer,” Casey chants of amorphous “pain” before falling toward a “golden light,” then picks himself back up “once the tranqs had hit” on the surging “Modern Business Hymns.” A classic post-punk banger that energizes the record’s bottom half, “Hymns” illuminates long-standing discrepancies between the rich and the poor, cautioning that “the past is full of dead men,” but “the future is a cruelty.” Ultimate Success Today is littered with many of these shrewd, almost divine lessons that force us to question what personal prosperity really means. What are we working towards, and what happens when we get there?
Overall, The End — the big, terrifying moment that, these days, feels like it could be closer than ever before — is the real protagonist of Ultimate Success Today. “This is the dawning of the day without end, when fear steps into light,” Casey announces prophetically on the album’s opening track, a sax wailing in the tense, eerie distance. Is it a glimmer of hope? Maybe. In many ways, Ultimate Success Today is the culmination of a journey without a final destination. We don’t have much right now, but we do have the drive to keep moving forward. Afterall, no one ever really knows what’s ahead — but if anyone does, it’s Joe Casey. So we keep listening.