For me, moments of coincidence, more often than not, take on higher levels of meaning. I need to tell you this because during my first listen to Protomartyr’s ‘Relatives In Descent’, I made a mental note to google Heraclitus The Obscure, who is referenced in the standout opening track ‘A Private Understanding’.
Unfortunately, in my first-holiday-of-the-year excitement, Heraclitus slipped my mind. Until a couple of days later. Exploring the Dutch national art gallery, The Rijksmuseum, I came across two wonderful portraits by Hendrick Ter Brugghen: one of the most important artists in the Dutch Golden Age painting movement.
One depicted a young man, leaning on a globe and laughing. The painting next to it was of an old man, also leaning on a globe but looking melancholic and dismissively waving his left hand. The old man in the paintings was none other than the aforementioned Heraclitus.
Heraclitus The Obscure was a Greek philosopher who was also known as the ‘crying philosopher’ because he mourned the stupidity of mankind. The young man opposite him is Democritus, also a Greek philosopher who hedonistically laughs at mankind’s folly, rather than lamenting it. Together, they both deliver a sobering message; whether you cry or laugh, people will remain incurably foolish.
It’s a sentiment which perfectly encapsulates what ‘Relatives In Descent’ stands for. Frontman Joe Casey vents his frustrations on everything from the current climate in world politics and the dishonesty in capitalism, to worrying about what today’s poor choices will mean for future generations “My children/They are the Future/Good luck with the mess I left, you innovators”.
His trademark guttural grumble of a voice is weary yet defiant but never self-pitying. The comparisons to Nick Cave and to Mark E Smith are inevitable – Casey honouring the latter in the grunts at the end of the lyric “Here’s the thing-uhn” throughout the track of the same name and in the irreverent repetition of “Knock it down/Throw him out” on ‘Up The Tower.’
Protomartyr’s sardonic statements would not have the same impact without the rest of the band crushing their way through each song. Astute musicians they can take a song from delicate, controlled harmonies and sparse, measured melodies to distorted, fraught freak outs which only serve to intensify both Casey’s vocal and his words. Scott Davidson’s bass and Alex Leonard’s drums are a strong backbone, providing a driving and compelling force behind the singing, with guitarist Greg Ahee weaving his bruising guitar riffs around the others.
Casey is an intelligent lyricist – my favourite kind. He is an elaborate story teller and has a clever way with tongue-in-cheek word play. Lines such as “…this age of blasting trumpets/paradise for fools/infinite wrath” whilst obviously jabbing at President Trump also took me back to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy, with biblical imagery peppering a story about events in the lead up to Elvis’ death on a bathroom floor.
Casey has proven time and again that he can write well on the things that matter. But ‘The Chuckler’ proves that he can turn even the most mundane of stories into a fascinating commentary on the world. Singing about answering cold calls from an Indian call centre “I just wanted to talk/to the direct marketer from Bangalore/ Or was it Mahabalipuram”, Casey’s deft writing ability crosses languages and is especially impressive here as he refers to the caller as “yaar”, which in Urdu translates as a friend and comrade who has supported you during a tough time.
Along with the imagery of a cactus that only flowers in the dark on ‘Night-Blooming Cereus’ and the haunting refrain of “She’s trying to reach you”, which echoes throughout the opening and closing tracks, it is these private moments of hope that hit home with the real meaning behind ‘Relatives In Descent’…
That even in an incurably foolish world, there is still hope if people can, and are willing to, connect on a human level.