#36. Protomartyr: The Agent Intellect
The Agent Intellect begins with the devil’s origin story. For their take on the man in red, Protomartyr reject the archetypical satyr atop a throne of fire, instead casting him as an unassuming boy (think The Omen or Looper). But by humanizing the devil they somehow make him even scarier, because suddenly his existence doesn’t seem so farfetched. Described as a young, well-to-do white boy in suburbia, he grows up full of promise and potential. But his privilege proves to be his undoing once he comes of age. Suddenly, the world isn’t handed to him on a silver platter anymore. “The women didn’t love him / the races all ignored him,” and so the devil set out to bend those around him to his will, shaping the world in the bitter image of his white male privilege.
The Agent Intellect then proceeds to draw parallels between this suburban Satan and some of the decadence and decay going on in the real world. It’s a bleak, angry album, probably Protomartyr’s darkest yet. At its most pessimistic, it turns its eyes toward the worst society has to offer, implying that they could be the devil incarnate. At its most forgiving, it paints the general populace as relatively powerless masses whose deaths are often more significant than their lives.
Even when the post-punk noise rock quartet aren’t playing the four horsemen of the apocalypse, their lyrics still sound lifted from the Book of Revelation. In a potential jab at Pharrell’s carefree radio hit “Happy,” singer Joe Casey mourns in his deep, drawling voice that “false happiness is on the rise / see the victims piled high / in a room without a roof.” Good people seem doomed to die, while the bad men of the world keep on living. On “Dope Cloud,” Casey sarcastically sings about “the largesse of the Lombard Bank…blowing gold dust into the pockets of the undeserving.” Elsewhere he remembers the “chemist priest,” a chemistry teacher from his old high school who was locked up on molestation charges. Here, “priest” is likely used as an indicator of pedophilia, but there are a lot of allusions to priesthood, piety, and the uphill journey to salvation on the album. On “Pontiac 87” Casey fleetingly remembers seeing the pope speak in his home state of Michigan, but more vividly recalls the riots that broke out afterwards. “Old folks turned brutish / trampling their way out the gates / towards heaven,” he mumbles over melancholy accompaniment in what would be a sneer if he didn’t sound so apathetic.
Protomartyr’s world is gloomy and crumbling. Everywhere they look, they see despondency and desolation. “The eyes of Kayrouz are upon you,” Casey sings about one lawyer’s billboard and bus ads that have popped up all over his home city of Detroit. “Her piercing eyes (stare) through your wretched soul,” he elaborated after the album’s release. To Protomartyr, she seems to be a real-life T. J. Eckleburg, staring out over a valley of ashes that spreads far past the borders of Detroit, or Michigan, or even the country. The sonic landscape of The Agent Intellect similarly blends together into one continuous texture—but one song still stands out. All of Casey’s pleas for immortality and salvation come to a climax on “Ellen,” which is written from the perspective of his deceased father singing to his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. It's an unexpected, touching love song. "Beneath the shade / I will wait for Ellen," he sings in his father's voice. "I'll pass the time with our memories...I took them on ahead, I'll keep them safe." In an interview with The Quietus, Casey admits he had to make a conscious effort not to be maudlin on the song, and it definitely paid off. Like everybody else he sings about, his parents’ lives seem inseparable from their deaths, both past and pending. But after spending an entire album despairing that death is the hopeless fate of the damned, he finds new perspective on “Ellen,” framing it as just another step in a journey that’s driven by love. Suddenly, death is more than the snuffing out of a candle. It’s a beautiful escape from all the bullshit that the living world is preoccupied with—a chance at something better.