"They lie, they lie, they lie," sings Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey on 'The Hermit' from the band's arresting new album, "The Agent Intellect" (Hardly Art). The song is a tumble of Casey's words tossed around like an inner tube in the rapids of bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard's rumbling rhythm, over which Greg Ahee's guitar spits growling mist. It's an agitated rush but not exactly pissed off, more a bad attitude than somebody slipping on brass knuckles. And the way Casey deadpans those "lies"—they're not accusations, complaints, or even mild irritations. They're blunt statements of fact, ordinary observations about what politicians, bankers, civic leaders, and friends often do. Casey's voice sounds likes he's lived long enough for his soul to go hoarse, and pointing out existence's obvious duplicity feels as automatic as asking for matches when buying a pack of smokes.
This Detroit post-punk band came out of the box with its thousand-yard stare fully formed, and over its previous two albums, 2012's "No Passion All Technique" and 2014's "Under Color of Official Right," the quartet hasn't refined or evolved its sound so much as profoundly expanded its emotional reach. "Agent" is a deeply personal album that operates on a broadly human scale. It's an album that knows life is a tragedy on a timer. Its jagged rhythms are like the footpaths people carve through lots between abandoned buildings in those urban neighborhoods that developers haven't decided to play renewal roulette with yet. It's an album that remembers the shitty history behind today's temporary triumphs. And Casey, already an indelible lyricist, reveals a gift for the clarity of working-class expressionism on par with Fanny Howe, that too-often slept-on poet and novelist who sees the human flowers that live in the cracked, unstable bedrock of America.
Of course, that's always been the band's Catch-22: celebrations of Protomartyr's Detroitness can feel a bit like those distasteful infatuations with Detroit's Detroitness. That a Tumblr called Descriptions of Joe Casey, which is exactly what it sounds like, exists feels as shitty as those photography sites dedicated to Detroit ruin porn. Nothing like aesthetically appreciating the industrial decay of neoliberalism's economic and cultural violence to make you feel like a tourist in humanity. Which is why what the band pulls off with this new album feels so deliciously subversive. "Agent" finds Protomartyr taking its broken windows and broken-nose countenance and daring to make something beautiful.
And I don't mean poppy or accessible. "Agent" lands beyond such parochial concerns. Look no further than 'Why Does it Shake?' and 'Ellen.' The former is informed by Casey's observations of his mother's Alzheimer's disease; the latter is what sounds like a love song to a woman from the point of view of somebody already dead. Both burrow right past the ears to the heart. For 'Ellen,' Leonard and Davidson put a percolating pulse behind Ahee's background strumming, while Casey, hitting the lower depths of his baritone, sing-speaks, "though I have gone before, I will wait for Ellen/ I'll pass the time with our memories forever/ I took them all and then I kept them safe for Ellen." And in the devastating 'Shake,' Casey's narrator defiantly mumble-brags in the face of mortality, claiming, "Smart mind, eternal youth, I'll be the first to never die/ Nice thought, and I'm never going to lose it." Behind him Davidson pounds out a trotting gait atop which Ahee drops plaintive guitar chords. Ahee announces the song's jolting bridge with a distorted eruption that lands like a slap to the face, and Casey's repetitions of "never going to lose" turns the boast into a desperate wish. Halfway through, the song transforms into a levitating throb, with Casey wondering, "Why does it shake? the body, the body, the body/ Why does it move?/ the fear, the fear, the fear." It's an almost unbearable song for anybody who has watched a loved one's animating spirit extinguish itself from the inside, and it's a gorgeous evocation of the apprehension that comes with wondering if that's a fate lurking waiting for you near the end of life's path.
Elsewhere the band wraps complicated memories around a noisy tumult ('Pontiac 87'), anecdotal narratives around a punk rush ('Cowards Starve,' the fab 'Uncle Mothers'), and defiant moods around a jittery jangle ('Clandestine Time'). This is music free from extravagances—such as guitar solos, sing-along choruses, unnecessary words—without ever assuming that the broad range of human emotions are indulgences out of reach for the people who pass through the world the songs sketch.