The Agent Intellect
Hardly Art; 2015
In the past few years the once crumbling city of Detroit has seen a resurgence. In the wake of the automotive industry’s near collapse, companies like Quicken Loans and Shinola have made the corpse of the motor city their home. In 2010, Detroit became the fastest growing region for technology jobs with names like Google, IBM, and ProQuest seeing the bedraggled city as a great place to make their mark (tax breaks don’t hurt, either). As a result of this resurgence, many in the area fear that this gentrification of the city is wiping away the remnants of the city’s rugged history.
Protomartyr, a band of Detroit natives, execute this narrative perfectly in their latest release, The Agent Intellect. On the surface, Agent Intellect explores frontman Joe Casey’s struggle with the recent death of his father, but this discussion of mortality also doubles as an omen for the state of the band’s hometown. This isn’t Dan Gilbert’s squeaky clean, renovated Detroit; this is the seedy underbelly, filled with songs of arson, auto theft, drug abuse, and violence.
“Dope Cloud” best exemplifies the mantra of the Motor City, Casy singing throughout “That’s not gonna save you, man.” He moves through a laundry list of false hopes and quick fixes. But as the Detroit natives languish in a world of quick fixes, Casey describes a dope cloud descending on the city, “Blowing gold dust/ Into the pockets/ of the undeserving.” Yes, the city has seen a comeback, but Wall Street vultures are feeding off of the urban carcass while the people of the city continue to struggle on the outskirts of town.
On “Pontiac 87,” Casey regales us with a story of when he saw the Pope speak at the Silverdome in 1987. Instead of being a spiritual experience, he sees the ugliness that surrounds him – the greed, the anger, and the carnage displayed afterwards. This reflection on a loss of faith once again touches upon themes of a lost city as well. In the third verse he describes a night at a neighborhood bar (a common setting throughout the album). The speaker notices new faces and compares them to the fresh white snow outside the window. This is not the vibrant, multi-cultural Detroit he grew up with. Instead, he describes the unfamiliar faces as “New money and false friends.” He goes on to admit that “The God of change/ knocked me on my knees,” but by the end the song, he’s only left with the hardened response of “There’s no use being sad about it/ What’s the use of crying about it?”
I’ve enjoyed Protomartyr’s gritty sound on past albums, but The Age Intellect is the first time that the lyrics consistently match the music’s feeling of desperation and hopelessness. The guitar riffs are scuzzy, Sonic Youth takes on post-punk. The basslines are dark, mysterious, and threatening, like a stranger in the corner of the bar that could pull a knife out at any moment.
Casey sings in a raspy baritone like he spent the night before out at the bar, smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey. What he lacks in vocal registry is made up for in the attitude within his intonation. His wordplay and cavalier vocalizations can be both entertaining and foreboding. The world may be full of exploitive bloodsuckers, but Casey makes it clear that he doesn’t see any point in trying to stop it. Detroit may be the new Sillicon Valley, but The Age Intellect is a reminder that the greasy engine of the Motor City hums on with plucky pride and defeated indifference.