“The weird thing about existential dread is that there’s no answer for it, except ‘Get over it,’” says Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey.
Another answer might be to write three excellent punk albums that defiantly face that dread head-on, approaching it with equal parts wry cynicism and graceful acceptance. The Agent Intellect — the group’s most fully realized album yet and one of last year’s best — sees the Detroit band exploring questions of selfhood and identity, both in relation to our changing culture and to the inevitability of death.
“The world that you’re living in right now is very influenced by the Internet and all this modern technology that I don’t think we know exactly how it’s affecting us yet,” Casey says. “We don’t know how it’s changing us emotionally.”
It’s a question that Casey explores on “Boyce or Boice,” a snarling track that begins with the question, “What have they wrought / From screen to self?” The song invokes the titular demons, who some believe interfere with electronic equipment, as metaphors for what Casey — who proudly notes that he only recently traded in his flip phone for a smart phone — sees as the insidiousness of Internet culture. (“Break the circuit / Cast them out,” Casey shouts as the song ends. “Remove the fire from thine eyes!”)
“People that are selling you smartphones and computers want you to think that if buy these accoutrements and stuff that you’ll become a new human,” Casey says. “You’ll rise to the point that you’ll know exactly where the good restaurant is, you’ll pay your bills, you’ll be ahead of the curve. That’s not really how it works. When everybody gets that technology, bad things happen.”
Casey’s nervousness about the ubiquity of these potentially harmful elements in Western culture extends throughout other songs. On Agent Intellect standout “Why Does It Shake?”, which delves into fears of decay and death, he humorously dismisses Pharrell Williams’ 2014 single “Happy” as “false.”
“I think there’s contentedness and you can be happy,” Casey explains. “But when someone’s trying to sell you something on TV, and they have a big song about happiness and how happiness is the truth, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’m kind of being a nitpicker, but take the line where he says being happy is like being in a room without a roof. I guess that’s a nice image; you’re so happy you’re blowing the roof off. But if you have no roof, you’re going to get rained on. What’s the point of a room without a roof? It’s terrible.” In “Why Does It Shake?”, that room’s open ceilings allow for taller piles of false happiness’s “victims.”
“I would think if you’re going to CVS to get medication and you’re having a bad day, and that song was piped in, it could drive you mad,” Casey says. “The sentiment’s nice, but when it starts getting into the commercial aspect and it’s played everywhere, it can be almost torture. ‘Why are you not as happy as this song?’”
But The Agent Intellect isn’t entirely built on a foundation of misanthropy. It also features some of Casey’s most personal, hopeful songwriting yet. “Ellen,” the album’s penultimate track, has characteristically heavy subject matter (it’s about Casey’s mother’s Alzheimer’s) but Casey describes the song as “uplifting — kind of like, maybe there is some hope in life.”
“I figured if I was going to write a song about Mom it would probably have to be sooner rather than later,” Casey continues. “I knew that I didn’t want it to be super specific. I really didn’t want to talk about her life as a person. I didn’t want to share any personal stories about the relationship between my mom and my dad. I knew that I had to write, in a sense, a romantic love song or ode, which is something I had never done before.”
The song, written from the perspective of Casey’s deceased father, waiting for Casey’s mother in the afterlife. “I’ll pass the time / With our memories,” Casey sings. “I took them on ahead / I kept them safe.”
“[That song] afforded me opportunities to do something I’d never done before,” Casey says, “and, I hope, to talk about somebody I love respectfully and try to be a bit beautiful. It’s pretty easy for me to write stuff that’s angry or sardonic. It takes an extra effort, for me at least, to emote. It was a perfect little experiment to see if it would work.”
Despite the differences in tone, though, The Agent Intellect rarely strays far from its unifying themes of identity and selfhood. “My fear of technology is that it removes a lot of humanness,” Casey says. “I just read an article today in which someone was wringing their hands about how [mobile dating app] Tinder is changing the way people interact, because they’re so used to swiping left or right on people that they just don’t give people the time of day. That’s kind of the removal of the self, or the changing of the self. The mind is being removed. And talking about my mother’s Alzheimer’s, and seeing what she’s going through on a day-to-day basis, that’s the ultimate example of, ‘Are you still you if your mind changes?’ I don’t have the answer to that. I don’t think anybody really does.”
Protomartyr will perform at Saturn on Tuesday, Feb. 23 as part of the Good People Brewing Company-sponsored “Saturn Nights” series. Spray Paint and Street Shark will open. The show is free. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.