Review: Protomartyr’s ‘Ultimate Success Today’ delivers pitch-black catharsis for dark times
And you thought Protomartyr's last album was bleak. While they bristle at being known as a "misery band," the Detroit post-punk group excel at mirroring the mood of the world, or, in the case of Ultimate Success Today, predicting it. The record was made nearly a year ago but songs about "a foreign disease washed upon the beach" and abusive law enforcement couldn't be more now. Parallels between pop culture and our current climate have been frequent in 2020, but this album feels uncanny.
Ultimate Success Today wraps up a decade for Protomartyr, and Joe Casey has called it the fifth and final chapter in this particular book. "I wasn’t planning for it to sound like such a final statement, but now that we can’t tour the album, and that the future of music is such a big question mark, it adds an extra layer of irony to it," Casey told NME. "The world may decide that, actually, this is our last album." Let's hope not, as Protomartyr are consistently and powerfully able to articulate feelings and fears many of us have, even if we have to look up some of the words sometimes ("tatterdemalion" anyone?). We need them around, as this album shows.
Protomartyr made the record in upstate NY, co-producing with David Tolomei and bringing in a number of guests, including reed players Jemeel Moondoc and Izaak Mills, and Half Waif's Nandi Rose. (They clearly liked the added instrumentation Kelley Deal brought to 2018's Consolation EP.) It's their heaviest record yet, which is an odd thing to say about an album with this much oboe on it. That instrument is most prominent on "Processed by the Boys," which Casey wrote about ICE agents -- guys who couldn't hack it in the military or the police but still wanted work where they could exert control -- but it's taken on a different feel in the wake of George Floyd/Breonna Taylor protest. Casey posits that when the end comes, it will not be that "foreign disease" or "a dagger plunged from out the shadows." Instead: "Reality has a far duller edge /Everybody's hunted with a smile, being processed by the boys." Greg Ahee's guitars slash at you, but the oboes disorient you and take the song somewhere more surreal.
Moondoc's improvisational sax style brings a sense of chaos that deepens the unease in Casey's lyrics and the band's music, like on "The Aphorist," when the otherwise melodic and pleasant track rips wide open as if to scream "enough" to all the unwanted advice being parsed out by the song's low-key villains (like the "failed lawyer haunting teen-punk shows.") He likewise ups the intensity of "Tranquilizer," maybe the most intense song on the album, written following a health scare for Casey. Moondoc's sax flutters in the background, like a worry that you're trying desperately to drown out.
Ultimate Success Today is Protomartyr's best-sounding record yet, with inspired playing by Aghee, bassist Scott Davidson (who drives a few of the melodies here), and amazing drummer Alex Leonard. Casey, meanwhile, is doing more "singing" than ever before, duetting with Nandi Rose on "June 21" (which, no offense to The Lovin' Spoonful, truly makes summer in the city sound dirty and gritty), and crooning through the chorus of "Modern Business Hymns."
The album's title, the kind of meaningless catchphrase you hear in late night infomercials promising all manner of financial panaceas, pops up in three songs: album opener "Day Without End," which starts like "Shaft" but does not end like it; "Modern Business Hymns," a dystopic fever dream of the future where "We'll never make the grade / No matter what we saved"; and "Bridge & Crown," another tale of grasping at straws ("We're holding on to little dreams / To drive our bodies all down the line 'til there's nothing left").
The album ends with "Worm in Heaven," one of Protomartyr's best-ever songs, which Casey says (somewhat jokingly) is a farewell song for a farewell album, written so that in case he dies there'd be an obvious song to play at his funeral. (He also says he wanted to get it out of the way so he can move onto other subjects besides death. We'll see.) "I am the worm in heaven / Remember me, how I lived / I was frightened / Always frightened." It's a swaying, beautiful song that, like a lot what Protomartyr do, is both sincere and cynical. It's catharsis and commiseration, not misery.