If Protomartyr’s 2020 album Ultimate Success Today was a meditation on our broken world, its newest release, Formal Growth in the Desert, is an exploration of healing (frontman Joe Casey’s mother died from Alzheimer’s in 2021) and growth (Casey got married last month).
It reads like a book, its impassioned lyricism underscored by reverb, pedal steel guitar, and pattering, stick-clacking drums. The sound builds on the musical spaciousness of Ultimate Success, reflecting the environs of the Tornillo, Tx., ranch at which it was recorded. Indeed, the new album’s title offers a straightforward glimpse into its subject matter.
Casey’s emotionally disparate experiences prior to Formal Growth’s creation form a through line that maintains Protomartyr’s distinctive gloom while managing to venture into more positive territory than prior releases. Casey previously said he was “trying to find a way forward after some pretty heavy things, without lyrically resorting to ‘Oh my god, my life sucks,’” and this intention bookends the album. The opening track and lead single, “Make Way,” is emphatically forward-looking: “You can grieve if you wanna / But please don’t ruin the day,” he pleads. “Make way / Make way for tomorrow.”
The desert is an apt backdrop for Protomartyr’s least cynical album to date. Its ancient and sparsely populated landscape makes the human lifespan all the more insignificant to Casey – on “Elimination Dances,” he muses that “In the desert I was humbled / seeing what a thousand years of ice did” and that “It seems so belittling / the tap calls the time.” If Formal Growth is a book, time is the antagonist, and one to be wrestled with and feared. Case in point is “Fun in Hi Skool,” a sardonic lament about life since adolescence with lyrics such as “Too bad you haven’t said a good thing / since the drought of ‘83.”
Midway through Formal Growth is a lull, where the music isn’t quite so dynamic and the lyrics less in line with the overall narrative. “Let’s Tip the Creator” is heavy-handed on figurative language and lacking in sonic distinctiveness, and the following track, “Graft v. Host” falls similarly short. But by “Polacrilex Kid,” things pick back up. “Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?” a nicotine-gum-chewing antihero asks over a fascinating range of guitar lines.
Perhaps the hardest-hitting track on Formal Growth In the Desert is its penultimate, “The Author.” Here, Casey addresses his mother’s death head-on, with the first verse and chorus reading like an obituary: “This one born upon a kitchen table / When she passed away / sleeping ‘cross the shoulder of my brother / Can I make you see / the simple beauty in the knowing of her?”
Formal Growth reaches its narrative climax on “The Author;” during which Casey defeats his antagonist. He speaks directly to the listeners, reminding us that time is against us but asking that we surrender to it rather than fighting it. Protomartyr could have left us with this message, but the album instead concludes with “Rain Garden,” the closest the band has ever come to a happy ending. Midway through, Casey answers the question posed in “Polacrilex Kid”: “I am deserving of love,” he declares. “They’ll say it’s just a love song / But love, love has found me.”