The symbolic and literal centerpiece of Protomartyr’s new album Formal Growth in the Desert is “Graft Vs. Host,” a song about forcing yourself to experience happiness after a crushing loss. In Joe Casey’s typically circuitous and surreal lyrics, Detroit bars and locals transform into poetically abstracted iconography and overheard asides become barked choruses. Here, the way he writes about his late mother is quiet and direct. “She’d want me to try and find happiness in a cloudless sky,” he sings. Alex Leonard’s rumbling drums back Scott Davidson and Greg Ahee’s ominous simmer, but all the heft falls away for a few overwhelming melodic tones—bursts of light through the darkness. Casey doesn’t always sound particularly convinced, but Formal Growth feels like an earnest attempt to get there.

Ahee, the guitarist and album co-producer, has said that scoring short films informed the process of assembling these songs, and Casey’s bandmates assist him by summoning positivity even when that feels impossible. Take the start of side two, when after 11 years and six albums spent gradually evolving toward a big, sweeping indie-rock sound, Protomartyr charge in with the thrashing guitars and fuzz-caked bass solos of their punk foundation. Casey, in his trademark mumbled bark, muses about the estimated 3,800 tigers known to survive in the wild. At first this grim statistic darkens his view of humanity—there’s “far too many of you fools”—but soon the broad ruminations give way to “write what you know” riffing. As if compelled by the logo on his hat, Casey starts in about Detroit Tigers legend “Sweet Lou” Whitaker and turns the hometown chant “eat ’em up, Tigers” into a howled command. The tug-of-war between endangered wildlife and a baseball team (extinction and a beacon, desert and growth) is classic Protomartyr—an unrelenting tension anchored by a Detroit institution they know like the backs of their hands. It also rips.

A stray, ragged, and fast punk song will forever be catnip to the Protomartyr faithful. Similarly, all you’ve got to do to prove they’ve still got it is quote any of Casey’s eternally quotable lines, like his reference to one character’s “array of disappointing nephews.” Those are the highlights, but some of the album’s most rewarding moments are its most gradual and subtle. Bill Radcliffe plays pedal steel on several songs including “We Know the Rats”; it’s a deft ambient touch that softens Protomartyr’s jagged edges, inching closer to shoegaze than they’ve ever been.

Protomartyr albums historically reward patience—close, repeated listens on headphones with typewritten lyrics in hand—so it’s a tough hurdle that the least remarkable song here is right up front. Opener “Make Way” jumps back and forth between quiet and bombast, sputtering without generating any real buildup or cool-off. It’s a less than inspiring introduction to a record with several songs that are distinguished by strong pacing. The swaying, skulking rhythm of “Let’s Tip the Creator” doesn’t require a big climax or drop; it’s a space where the band could’ve easily lingered for another several verses. “Polacrilex Kid,” the best of the advance singles, is another testament to Leonard’s crucial steadiness, laying the groundwork for Ahee to gradually transition from mellow atmospherics to crunchy power chords to a nimble and anthemic chorus.

“Make Way”’s other drawback: It’s the least lyrically specific song on an album replete with unbelievable details. When he sings about deserving love and the dangers of solitude on “Rain Garden,” Casey delivers the album’s best vocal performance while his bandmates build to the magnitude of an orchestra. Meanwhile, he’s asking you to consider the symbolism of a half-full Baja Blast in a parking lot behind a Coney Island restaurant. Elsewhere, a tragedy about two lovers dying in a car—lost on the way to the titular fulfillment center—begins with the admission that these people are a plot device to make the song “more heartbreaking.” Such sharp, fourth wall-busting writing this deep into their discography isn’t a given. Formal Growth in the Desert is a remedy for spiritual depletion: a promise to stay open when there seems to be nothing left.

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Protomartyr: Formal Growth in the Desert