Protomartyr March Toward Love on 'Formal Growth in the Desert'

BY Madison RyanPublished Jun 5, 2023

On Formal Growth in the Desert, Protomartyr's Joe Casey takes the band in a direction it's never gone before: toward love. The band's sixth record comes after the death of Casey's mother; an incomparable loss that can be felt in the music alone. It illustrates how grief can be like a desert, tinged with a numbness that makes the task of moving on seem impossible. Crucially though, it also explores the ways that grief can be an oasis, blooming with memories. 

The barren aspect of the album's title is apparent in the eerie, reverb-heavy opening track "Make Way"  — that is, until about 20 seconds in when the energy comes rushing in with a vengeance. These songs rarely loosen their grip.

Even musically, Formal Growth in the Desert is darker and more urgent than Protomartyr's previous releases, not that they were ever a particularly lighthearted band. "3800 Tigers" is driven by a fuzz-drenched bass line, and most of the album embraces Alex Leonard's air-tight drumming skills, an urgency balanced by subtle, sweeping synth melodies scattered across the record. Still, Protomartyr's signature sound remains intact. 

Although Formal Growth sounds different from the rest of the band's discography, some tracks run the risk of sounding too similar to each other. There's a distinct narrative flow here, but the music is played too safe at some points — "We Know the Rats" and "The Author" are musically similar, but the lyrical content adds some distraction. The group's musical evolution is clear, but they clearly can (and should) push even further into this heavier direction. 

This record is a declaration of self-growth and worth. It confronts the pain of loss head-on, but still makes time for the sharp social commentary Protomartyr's lyrics are known for. Across each of their albums, the band's songs were steeped in contemplative philosophy, and despite the new emotional honesty, that fact still rings true. One track that stands out is "Fulfillment Center," which describes a passionate escape from a capitalistic landscape atop a frantic drum beat. 

The pain of loss radiates through Formal Growth via the stunning self-awareness in Casey's lyrics. Eight tracks in, on "Polacrilex Kid," the record reaches its emotional zenith. Here lies the question, "Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?" The emotional blow of this line almost gets lost in the music, but Casey repeats it with increasing earnestness. 

The question is left hanging until Formal Growth in the Desert's nearly five-minute finale, "Rain Garden," when it's finally answered. There's a certain beauty in the memories of a person — it's a truth so universal it doesn't need to be explained, yet Casey expresses it perfectly; the rest of the band backs him with a forceful musical score of a portrait of a full life. 

Love always makes its way in. It hides in the darkest corners, but when revealed, it's triumphant. "Make way for my love," Casey sings, as the cymbals herald a new found hope.

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