Protomartyr Credit: Zak Bratto

These days, nihilism isn’t a choice—it’s a corner that we’ve boxed ourselves into in a feeble attempt to preserve some semblance of peace of mind. By 2020, Protomartyr had already spent more than a dozen years making malaise seem ineffably cool, with vocalist Joe Casey serving up tongue-lashings over gummy bass lines and bristling riffs. On the band’s new fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, Casey confronts the decline of his own health alongside the decay of our planet due to human recklessness. In a bit of gallows humor in the press release for the album, he says he treated it like it might be the band’s final act: “I made sure get my last words in while I still had the breath to say them.” Casey’s farewell letter reads like a laundry list of quagmires and calamities—rabid dogs and disease gnash through the anti-police dirge “Processed by the Boys,” while they must ward off black bile to make way for golden light in the acid-punk-tinged “Tranquilizer.” Ultimate Success Today could have easily buckled beneath the weight of Protomartyr’s dissatisfaction, but the Detroit four-piece enlisted a seasoned crew of guests to help shoulder the load, including improvising saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, vocalist Nandi Rose (aka Half Waif), and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Thankfully the extra hands don’t distract the band from their postpunk whims: Casey still incants like a whiskey-sloshed soothsayer, and the two-man rhythm section still hot trots and syncopates with abandon. Had Ultimate Success Today been released in a year untouched by pandemic, rebellion, and locusts, it would’ve landed somewhere between cautionary tale and philosophical inquiry. Today it arrives like a wretched proof of life.   v