“Stay, illusion!” Horatio famously (and fruitlessly) warns King Hamlet’s ghost. In this spirit of enduring futility comes Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right, a desperate, invigorating paen to resistance against our everyday demons: “Greedy bastards, rank amateur professionals, gluten fascists… recent memories,” and “terrible bartenders.”
These are all on singer Joe Casey’s list for extermination in “Tarpeian Rock,” a dissonant jag named after a cliff in ancient Rome used to execute criminals and liars. “Emotional cripples… Smug urban settlers, adults dressed as children,” Casey drones over Scott Davidson’s TV game show bassline (We’ll be back with Meting Justice right after this commercial break) while his other vocal tracks, somewhere amongst the rabble in the Roman Forum, yell “Throw them from the rock!”
Casey’s voice is a unique brand of everyman bark, the unmistakable shout of your neighbor cutting through the picket fence. It’s also remarkably versatile. The band can squint at The Spits or echo The Fall, and they also share style with their peers Tyvek. Protomartyr is exceptionally skilled at draping the starker edges of punk over pop hooks, and guitarist Greg Ahee can linger on a shimmering, solitary minor chord just enough to make Paul Banks choke.
Though the album’s title is seemingly lifted out of Marat’s bathtub, it’s actually legalese from the guilty verdict against the disgraced former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick (all the members of Protomartyr are Detroit lifers). This air of erudition can feel angular and cold, as if the hound on the cover of the record is released as soon as the silver snuffbox snaps shut.
But Protomartyr dodges sanctimony through playfulness, and the humor varies from slapstick to deadpan. In “Want Remover,” Casey imagines a topical medication to burn off all that excess ennui. “Those judges shows I used to like,” he sings over Ahee’s meandering guitar. “Actors playing both parts / Judge Mathis would never stand for it.” Our inability to relinquish bullshit is conveyed in the infuriating, sanitized jargon of the precious electronic pebbles we can’t stop petting: “Device is almost full.”
Ahee’s guitar often acts as an aural thought bubble around Casey’s prose, the melody enhancing the vision in your head of our protagonist toying with his perspective and kicking rocks down the street. If the songs themselves largely paint shades of gray, shifts in rhythm and tone keep things bright, and these shifts can reflect our own clumsy ambivalence towards life in endearing ways.
An example: “Bad Advice” begins with a stirring punk indictment (“Overconfidence is a parasite”) over the menacing, off-kilter pumps of drummer Alex Leonard’s floor tom. But the mood soon changes; Ahee’s guitar sneaks to a sunnier register, and Casey no longer has his finger in the face of the enemy, but his arm draped over their shoulder. “It was bad advice,” he sweetly sings, occasionally slurring his words in a friendly manner. “What you said was bad advice, sir.” Human fallibility is common ground. You might be the architect of the Iraq War, or just a guy wearing Google Glass, but pull up a chair and have a beer.
“Come & See”, the single with the beefiest production on the record, behaves similarly. Icy chords border Casey’s sneer, “Have you heard the good news? / We’ve been saved by both coasts.” Yet the chorus arrives, the rhythm slows and the light comes on: “And I’ll try / to live defeated / Come and see / the good in everything.”
“Violent” is the band’s ode to the predictable cruelty of Nature; beautifully and delicately delivered with nursery rhyme certainty and catchiness. How can a song about circular misery be so comforting?
And yet what if it’s not? What if it all really is a pointless bummer? At times, Under Color comes dangerously close to falling under its own spell. Hear Casey’s voice spit “Don’t feel nothing / For anyone” enough times and you begin to question whether he stopped winking three spins ago.
Still, the band’s true enemy feels like cynicism. Protomartyr shouts “Stay, illusion!” not because they want it banished, but because the illusion is all we have. Live it while you can. After all, as Casey reminds us in the album's closer “I’ll Take That Applause,” there’s “nothing ever after.”