On their fifth album, Detroit’s Protomartyr seem to relinquish any sense of hope that may have been felt on their previous records and surrender to death in all its darkness. Ultimate Success Today is a well-coined marketing term for those cheesy commercials you may find while leaving your television on idly as you slumber, but in this case it depicts the cracks within our fragile system amidst the first pandemic of the twenty-first century.
Lyricist Joe Casey’s visions of suffering are brought to life in the tremble of his delivery within album opener, “Day Without End.” The group’s instrumentals slowly creep up on you as though mimicking the terror that plagues Casey as he realizes death is upon his door, “This is the dawning of the day without end / When fear steps into the light.” Guitarist Greg Ahee constructs the chilling threat in the wallowing coldness of his guitar that shrieks alongside a twisted saxophone. A dejected Casey repeats the mantra of the record twice before his imminent demise, “Dull ache turned sharp / Short breath, never caught.”
The album was recorded last year in a cavernous former church in Upstate NY, but the band manages to foreshadow the devastating reality we face today. Lead single, “Processed By The Boys” features lines that are all too familiar to the newsreels, “a foreign disease washed upon the beach” and “a riot in the streets.” Poignant lyrics that speak to the inhumane tactics of the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and what you could now liken to the broken justice system as a whole towards those who oppose it (“Everybody’s hunted with a smile / Being processed by the boys”). A sorrowful clarinet delivers the jab among the cacophony of noise the band produces by the end of the track.
While not nearly as strong in their own right, “I Am You Now” and “The Aphorist” continue on the theme of a ruined place amid civilizations’ collapse. A point of contrast to the black portrait of emptiness that the band crafts sits the album’s highlight, “June 21” that features vocals from Half Waif’s Nandi Rose, later accompanied by a beautiful video directed by Ashley Armitage. “Spotlight sweeping an empty stage / For a prima ballerina that has passed away,” whispers Rose while Alex Leonard’s drum roll prepares the listener for the descent towards hedonism. “June 21” depicts a humid summer day, where cops roam the streets and a decrepit backdrop of lonely souls are left to wither in isolation. The video portrays a former ballerina sitting in her home, reminiscing the crystalized purity of her youth before an injury stole those dreams away. It’s a striking portrait of adolescence juxtaposed with regret.
The album closes on the emotional weight of “Worm In Heaven,” a track that shows the band’s knack for writing heart wrenching anthems of misery. A mournful Casey brings a solemn, self-deprecating cheer as a final goodbye (“So it’s time to say goodbye / I was never so keen on last words / Hope I said something good”) to a lost love, who he hopes finds peace in the afterlife (“I wish you well, I do / May you find peace in this world / And when it’s over, dissolve without pain”). The haunting beauty of the track’s ode to the dearly departed was later envisioned by Director Trevor Naud. Photos are strung together to create a moving image of a woman in isolation, surrounded in empty white spaces in the hopes of finding a cure for her pain. The track ends with Casey beckoning for remembrance that may never come to fruition (“I exist, I did I exist / I did I was here, I was”). The band’s instrumentals reenact a person clutching their dying loved ones hand before the screen fades away.
Protomartyr realize our fears but welcome them with open arms and play the game that is existence.
Essentials: “Worm In Heaven”, “June 21”, “Day Without End”
Prerequisites: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Your Funeral; My Trial, Preoccupations – S/T