“The spirit of a stillborn nation […] wanders its own landscape trying to make sense of destiny, trying to make sense of survival, trying to make sense of which twin country is really left? Which is the corporeal and which is the ectoplasm? Which is the reflected and which the reflection? Which is the sun and which is the shadow?”
—Steve Erickson, Shadowbahn
In Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn, the Twin Towers return, fully formed, in the middle of the Dakota Badlands. Thousands are drawn to this “American Stonehenge,” and rumours start of a figure on the upper floors. This person, we find out, is Jesse Presley, the stillborn twin of Elvis—a man with no singing voice haunted by the spectre of his brother, and the memory of a parallel America where Elvis was never born. Growing increasingly strange, the dream-like novel charts the movement of several characters through this world, where a second reality impinges on our own, as though the line between two dimensions has grown porous, slowly melding into one.
Thus, while there is a binary difference between these two worlds, the experiences people have living in them is far more vague and mysterious. Some people see the Towers and hear music, though invariably hear different songs. Others hear “only a mass of harmonics,” while some hear nothing. Some don’t even see the Towers at all. If there is a distinct Real America and Shadow America, then one has become corrupted by the other to the point where it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. What’s more, crucially, inhabitants of both believe themselves to be Real Americans. The lasting impression of the book is that capital T-Truth is either impossible, or else so many-headed that it might as well be, with a different reality presented to almost every character. The truth is out there, singing from the Towers. Just don’t expect others to agree.
Which brings us to Relatives In Descent, the fourth album from Detroit’s Protomartyr. Led by vocalist Joe Casey, the quartet have been making literate, politically-relevant post-punk since 2012, and this latest record is as angry, hopeless and funny as ever, picking up on the same sense of confusion and fear as Erickson’s novel. Indeed, the very first lines of opening track ‘A Private Understanding’ crown uncertainty as the lead emotion. “Not by my own hand,” sings Casey. “Automatic writing by phantom limb / Not with my own voice / Pleurisy made to stand on two legs.” The lines serve as an abdication of authority, and thus form perhaps the only genuine communication between Casey and the listener before his characters take over, and we’re left to form our own private understanding of exactly what he is hoping to say through them.
Far from being an ironic means for Casey to escape responsibility for his words, the opening is pivotal for the record and the fundamental doubt that colours its main themes. Casey is acknowledging his struggle to communicate, the same problem faced by Elvis later in the track, who dies on the rug at the foot of his toilet never managing to convey his belief in/relationship with Jesus Christ. But, despite the difficulty and subsequent humiliation, beneath all this Casey is attempting to communicate, and thus trying to figure out what all this means. The closing refrain could be interpreted with this in mind—”She’s just trying to reach you”—with the nameless ‘She’ being something akin to truth or meaning, singing out from some distant place.
If such a relationship with truth suggests Casey and his characters are locked within a nightmare postmodern society, then welcome to Relatives In Descent. It doesn’t get any rosier. The apocalyptic blast of trumpet in the opening heralds a whole manner of contemporary horrors, capitalism looming over everything like some blind and cruel god. ‘Here Is The Thing’ finds Casey at his manic best, fierce and fervid to the point of incoherence, an eschatological preacher raving about a myopic malevolent force (AKA The Thing) and its presence everywhere, at all times.
“It lives in your home
Under roof and floor, every room
In the ground
In the day
In the grind of the day
It grows fat off your fear
And it will be with you for all of your life
Here is The Thing, there is The Thing”
The dread continues on ‘My Children’, a similarly fanatical song exploring inheritance in a world of disposable goods, and the anxiety of becoming disposable yourself, scrapped and replaced by more efficient models. Inspired by Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, ‘Catriona’ finds the protagonist within their grave, still simmering about their irritating features of their lives. “And all that loving, that’s leaving,” Casey sings, “replaced now with complaining down in this hole,” a sentiment in stark contrast to the romantic view of life after death he provided with the song ‘Ellen’ on their last record, Agents of Intellect. It feels like a writer providing a shadow to his previous light, working to undermine his bolder statements with insidious doubt.
The protagonist of ‘The Chuckler’ is similarly confused, dragging themselves through the vaguely torturous gauntlet of working life and hermetic isolation (they telephone call centres in Bangalore or Mahabalipuram just to talk to someone), suffering a kind of personal apocalypse as the real deal—war, rumours of war, clouds of poison in the sky, etc.— occurs around them. This Revelationary dread and technological fear is continued on ‘Windsor Hum’, which plays more or less like DeLillo’s White Noise committed to tape. The Windsor Hum is a real-life example of the phenomenon of unexplained noise, the city of Windsor, Ontario plagued by an industrial drone from across the border. A number of hypotheses have been put forward, from mechanical noise to tinnitus, though none offer a satisfying answer, and even the scientific explanations have a catastrophic bent.
Casey uses the hum as an allegory for The Thing, this unseen, inexplicable force that strips agency in the name of liberty and freedom, the inner-ear whisper that says consumption is king, and proliferation of wealth and goods the route to meaning. So, while the environment slowly breaks down, and people are displaced by famine and war, this tone fills our heads, pacifying any worries or misgivings, though sending a conspicuous chill down our spines that we do our best to ignore. What makes the metaphor extra relevant is the geographical side of the Windsor Hum, with the noise seeming to come from over the Detroit River. The good ol’ American Dream packaged up and exported worldwide.
“The old Windsor humming
Across the river
From the U.S. of A
Saying, “everything’s fine”
The track, closing out the A side of the record, is an important one, because it makes clear the angle of Casey’s attack, as well as his motivation. This isn’t the anti-capitalism of a Sixth Former in a Che Guevara T-shirt, rather the result of chronic, low-level body shock in reaction to a pervasive, unequal system, where autonomy is annihilated by the very items sold to fertilise it.
Which is exactly where ‘Don’t Go To Anacita’ picks up, the fictional town serving as a kind of end zone for neoliberalism—where people dream superficial dreams of “technology and kombucha,” worry about being cheated or robbed, and pray to a deity who only blesses the prosperous. ‘Up The Tower’ goes further, imagining rebellion, the peasants finally growing sick of their lives and responding with blood lust. However, beneath the satisfaction of such protest lies a deeper unease, one again related to the central doubt of the record. The hatred and violence conjured is mindless, the destruction of excess becoming an excess in itself. Without some degree of direction such energies creep toward ominous territory (see: anti-globalism and white supremacism), overpowering to the individual yet malleable to larger forces, prime to be shaped into ever-more seductive delusions, effectively becoming another weapon for The Thing despite the supporting rhetoric. In essence, when advancement requires a degree of destruction, then regression has a perfect disguise.
In many ways, ‘Night Blooming Cereus’ is the antithesis to this, celebrating not violent upheaval but unseen beauty that manages to flourish outside of The Thing’s control. This ode to those living on the fringes is perhaps the most hopeful moment on the record, suggesting that the answer might lie not with fire and fury but rather a collective refusal to play the game. However, this is of little consolation to those who have spent their days playing by its rules to still end up empty handed, and both ‘Male Plague’ and ‘Corpses In Regalia’ play like furious rebuttals by those already too-fully enmeshed within The Thing’s web, using false-nostalgia and raging resentment against what they see as the Shadow side. Flowers don’t bloom at night, they say. It’s not how things work. It’s not American.
“See-through skin – barnacles of age
Male plague, male plague
Old days misremembering
Male plague, male plague
You think the world owes you a stroke
Male plague, male plague
Fear of the future – losing your hold
Male plague, male plague”
Closing out the record, ‘Half Sister’ sets out this total subjectivity once more, with truth cast as something foreign or mythic or downright ridiculous. Again, Casey returns to his own struggles with the irony of being an artist in such a world, where to not speak against the absurdity of the system is to become complicit, yet knowing those very absurdities render his words meaningless. Rather than give up, or persevere nobly, Casey twists his art into the shape of this double-bind, using self-deprecation to cover any hint of naivety. “I have a backlog of so-called prophets,” a character tells a Messiah-like oracle near the beginning of the song. “You are of a multitude.” The preacher insists he witnesses truth, to which the first character reacts with genuine confusion and interest. “The truth?” he asks. “What is it?”
However, just as with the opening track, ‘Half Sister’ closes out with the nameless She trying to reach you, as though beyond The Thing and its man-made constructs exists something more elemental and true. The question then becomes, who is this She? The sun to The Thing’s shadow? The corporeal to its ectoplasm? The Elvis to its Jesse? Or merely some ancient, atavistic tone urging humankind back to an older violence, where the rules were simpler and man more sure in his ability to work Truth to his liking?
Relatives In Descent is out now via Domino, and you can get it from the Protomartyr Bandcamp page.