The Agent Intellect, the third full-length from Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr opens ominously with frontman Joe Casey speak-singing: "Before recorded time/in some suburban room/see/the devil in his youth." As "The Devil In His Youth" proceeds, Casey outlines the rise of this prickish would-be tyrant, growing up "pale and healthy," blessed by privilege and "the promise of adoring." Only, it doesn't work out. He's scorned by women and ignored by minorities, so he turns bitter, snarling like a Men's Rights Activist on Reddit, "I will make them think the way I do!"
If it sounds dire, well, it is. But in the capable hands of Casey, it's also brutally funny. The Agent Intellect, like the other lauded records in Protomartyr's discography, is filled with weird, sideways chuckles. Over the tight rhythm section of drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson and the wiry guitars and keyboards of Greg Ahee, Casey rails about heretics, digital demons, porn, the Pope, monsters, ruined faith and the apocalypse. He sings about the inevitable decay of the human body—referencing his mother's battle with Alzheimer's on the thundering "Why Does It Shake?"—and of transcendence, memorializing his late father's love for his mother on the gorgeous "Ellen." It's a lot to take in, but made direct and lean by the elegant precision of the band, each economic riff focused and purposeful.
Casey delivers each line with a off-kilter grin. His approach is rooted in the absurdity of the big questions; it's not that he doesn't grapple with them, it's just that ultimately, his take can be summed up succinctly by his refrain in "Pontiac '87": "There's no use being sad about it/what's the point of crying about it?"
"Do I like to laugh?" Casey asks over the phone from Detroit, responding to a ridiculously phrased question about the sense of humor the exists in his songs. "I love to laugh! It almost sounds like a Tinder profile or something: Loves to laugh, sarcastic sense of humor."
A decade older than his twenty-something bandmates, Casey possesses the distinctly self-deprecating and often twisted sense humor of a true Midwesterner. An English major who cribs references from old films, 16th century French surgeon Ambroise Paré and regional haunts, Casey isn't a traditional bandleader. His vocals swing from a barfly mumble to commanding bark on a dime, and unlike many rock singers, his lyrics hold up on the page, each song filled with weirdly beautiful and funny turns of phrase. Even at their bleakest, Casey's comedic chops are apparent.
He cites British comedies as favorites, like Steve Coogan's I Am Alan Partridge, Toast of London and Peepshow, and says everyone in the band loves the podcast/internet radio program, "The Best Show with Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster." "I grew up obsessed with 'The Simpsons,' like anyone else," Casey adds.
"I'm a fan of the joke that doesn't work, where you're trying to tell an old joke and the idea is you're telling a bad joke," Casey says. "I don't have cable, but I get these digital channels and one of them is called Buzzer. It's just old game shows. I love watching 'The Match Game '78' because the jokes are so bad. They're these old corny jokes, but I like that kind of stuff. Lately, that's been more influential on me than any old book."
Adding humor to songs about gentrification, doubt and sickness can sometimes prove difficult, Casey says. Even some of the album's most outlandish lines, like those about sending all the babies born this year "right back" in the closing song "The Feast of Stephen," have been perceived by some fans as genuine.
"I've had people be like, 'Why don't you like babies?' That's really dark," Casey says. "Unless you put a big sticker on your album that says, 'This is like the Jerky Boys or Weird Al Yankovic,' people are just going to think you're serious."
In his estimation, some of Casey's favorite music—like records by The Fall and The Smiths—suffer from a similar misconception.
"I'm always surprised when people talk about the Smiths being depressing or Morrissey being some weird serious guy," Casey says. "His lyrics are usually very funny. That's why you have to be careful with music and humor: because I don't think that people know how to handle it. It's hard to do. With The Smiths, a lot of it's straight up joking about love and all this goofy stuff—and weird analogies to Morrissey's penis, half the time."
In the album's most hallucinatory song, the fevered "Uncle Mother's," Casey paints the scene of "an old folks party." Children are left unattended in outside in cars while adults consume and undergo sinister procedures. It's freakish and dreamlike as Casey sings, "The dogs here/they are singing/what they are singing is quite bizarre." It's funny like an episode of "The Eric Andre Show" is funny, with an undercurrent of pure horror.
"It's hard to write a song and be like, 'This is actually not me speaking,'" Casey says. "[But] I'm writing a character. People take everything for your word. That everything has to be truthful in a song—that's ridiculous."
Casey creates these settings—the nightmarescape of "Uncle Mother's," the cosmic plane in "Elen," a half-remembered parade in "Pontiac '87," and lets loose his characters in them. They're fictions rooted in real absurdities, hilarious but not insincere or crafted to be snickered at. There's no point in being sad about this stuff; you might as well laugh at it.
"People are kind of dumbfounded that you can make stuff up," Casey laughs. "That's the trick to good writing: you learn to make stuff up."