Joe Casey is just a regular man. At first glance he might appear to be a tollbooth operator, or perhaps manager of a fast-food franchise. He is soft, middle-aged, and schlubby. His parents are dead, his city has crumbled to dust about him and he has nowhere to go but in the ground. Wracked with Catholic guilt, survivor’s guilt, and every other sort of guilt, he is shy, insecure and nervous: he takes his glasses off at concerts so he can’t see the crowd. But within him, there is simmering rage, lessons learned and an iron file baritone voice willing to holler. He is the front man and lead singer of the post-punk outfit Protomartyr, the creative product of a life gone wrong.
The first character we meet is evil incarnate in “The Devil In His Youth.” The song begins with a broody guitar pattern, unassuming, but still dark and stormy. Casey describes for us the Devil: young, locked in his room alone, unwanted, he could be any of us. Everybody joins in as the next shadowy verse is introduced and Casey’s mumbles are tossed about in a vortex of sonic wild. The song stays panicked to the end, the perfect introduction to an album about facing death.
The record reaches a self-destructive climax with “Pontiac 87.” The song is not the most vociferous on the album, but the poison soaked lyrics and nasty tug of war between right and wrong, contained within four minutes, nips at you like a crow snapping at your eyes. The song begins with an inky and echoing bass line tapping along, like a suicidal two-step on the edge of a high-rise. It invokes uncertain movement, the steady push of a shaken crowd on the edge of riot. Casey begins to growl, telling us the story of the Pope’s visit to Detroit in 1987. But there’s no reverence in his voice, only bitterness and bite; he only sees the evil picking at the seams of everyday life.
As the rest of the band joins him in anguished bursts, he sings of “old folks turning brutish” and “money exchanging between hands,” the moments of misplaced humanity, which persist even in the presence of the pontiff. Towards the tail, the guitars crescendo into a hornet’s nest, Casey chants, “There’s no use being sad about it / What’s the point of crying about it?” The bass line shuffles out of view and we’re left feeling bruised, knowing that even as holiness enters a room, wickedness sticks around. But should we pay that wound any mind?
Another standout is the brutish “Dope Cloud.” The track is dragged into movement by a sparse and predator-like guitar riff – each note feels tough but natural, like a boxer’s left-right combo. Between hazy moments of reverb and echo, Casey tells us we are defenseless and fatally vulnerable. He lists possible comforts we might find in life and then counters them with a dismissive ‘That’s not gonna save you, man.”
The Agent Intellect is a tough forty minutes. It is bruising, it is bullying. It disarms you and discourages you. But of course that’s not all. There is tough love ringed at the edges of the wounds it might inflict on you; there are lessons to be learned with each dirty hit. This is a band that wants you to toughen up and know your place, know where you stand in the great mess of it all. Face what’s left of the world with all your might and stay true. That’s all Casey wants for us.