Protomartyr singer Joe Casey earlier this month put his foot down in a firm stance against rock anthems. “I’m not very good at them,” he told PopMatters, “And I think the world’s got enough of them.” It doesn’t take a lot of research or fact checking to determine that, yeah, there’s a lot of anthems out there, and once they’ve been done right once — and have been, repeatedly, by artists from Protomartyr’s home city of Detroit (MC5, The Stooges, The White Stripes, et al.) — that second bolt of lightning rarely gets captured in an entirely new bottle. And if you’re looking for anthems on Protomartyr’s second album and Hardly Art debut, Under Color of Official Right, you’re bound to come up empty. There are punk rock rave-ups, post-punk grooves, and even the occasional dirge. But anthems? Not so much.
From the painting of a bloodthirsty-looking dog on its cover to Casey’s often humorously bleak lyrics, Under Color of Official Right presents a band that takes the long way round the mainstream, and offers accessibility only with a touch of danger. It’s not that Protomartyr isn’t wired to write anthems — on tracks like the tense, restrained opener “Maidenhead” or gothic pulse of “Come & See,” the band unleashes some unexpectedly infectious choruses brandishing their hooks under fluorescent light rather than obscuring them in their own shadowy alleyways. But it’s what goes on in those alleyways, smoke-filled studio apartments and cracked sidewalks that makes Under Color such a compelling listen.
The tone that “Maidenhead” sets for the album is one of detachment and resignation, burning slowly but propulsively as Casey mutters, “Shade goes up, shade goes down,” projecting an almost romantic kind of defeat with his deep croon. He saves his bleakest statement for when the volume turns up: “Don’t feel no pain for anyone/ don’t feel no love for anything.” That’s a pretty dark way to begin an album; where do you go from complete emotional disconnection from all things? For Protomartyr, it’s open ended — there’s no limit to the bemusement, satire and alienation that can be explored through twitchy, noisy post-punk songs. Casey plays bullet-miked announcer to his own physical scuffle on “Ain’t So Simple” (“You are now witnesses to some kind of confrontation between me and these three men“), makes nursery rhymes out of bloodlust in “Violent” (“If it’s violent/ Good/ ’cause if it’s violent, then it’s understood“), and runs the gamut from hockey players to deaths in sports bars to shitty fathers in the show-stopping “Scum, Rise!”
On Under Color of Official Right, Casey’s cynicism and gallows humor is delivered through dynamic and dizzying melodic vessels. Similar to their Brooklyn peers in Parquet Courts, Protomartyr have a taut, streamlined approach to post-punk. It’s a singular aesthetic, but one that allows for considerable range, alternately blasting into manic punk rock mode in “Son of Dis” or a dense cascade of shoegaze guitar on “What the Wall Said.” The wiry bounce of “Tarpeian Rock” echoes that of The Fall, with Casey airing a Mark E. Smith-like list of grievances (“Internet personas… ants in the bathtub… adults dressed as children“), which is then answered with repeated cries of “Throw it from the rock!” The reverb-laden riffs of “Scum, Rise!” approximate surf rock at its scariest, while the greatest strength of standout “Come & See” is its more muted tones, highlighting the band’s melodic sensibility in subtler shades.
Though Protomartyr never shy away from darkness and defeat on Under Color of Official Right, they never sound defeating, themselves. Quite the contrary — even more than on their solid debut No Passion All Technique, Under Color is energizing and powerful. It’s an album meant for dancing or jostling away anxiety as much as it is for wallowing in it. But even when they come awfully close (“Come & See”), Protomartyr still maintains a healthy distance from anthems. We are all in the gutter, but Protomartyr are taking an even closer look at the starlit flecks of filth and debris.