Once again the semi-derelict city of Detroit has resumed its stark relevancy as a cultural symbol.
Writing music inspired by its bleak grandeur, or making a film that patrols its hollowed nocturnal places, carries a certain charge, communicates a particular sense of panic as to what may happen to decades of modern culture when the lights in neglected cities go out.
Recently bankrupted and blighted by the highest crime rates in the U.S., Detroit has grown bigger than its own problems – and even those of recession-era America – to become a symbol of the apocalyptic fears surrounding cultural dereliction. Many see a wasteland of lost opportunities, a depopulated husk of a once-thriving civilisation. The city has assumed the place of a monumental warning to the rest of the post-industrial West.
The music press have been alerted to Detroit once again by the rapid rise of the band Protomartyr, whose forbidding post-punk is rooted aesthetically and lyrically in their home city’s past and present. Their latest album, 2015’s The Agent Intellect, is a harsh and challenging listen yet surprisingly humane and even cathartic.
If one casts a wary eye towards Pitchfork, then a recent podcast featuring the band offers an engaging insight into their song-writing process and their conscious efforts to evoke the urban environment. The song ‘Uncle Mother’ undergoes considerable analysis as interviewer Evan Minsker questions frontman Joe Casey on lyrical allusions both specific and vaguely suggestive. A series of ambiguously threatening statements build a sense of dread around what seems to be the story of a drug deal crossed with a bizarre blood ritual. Elsewhere, ‘Pontiac 88’ recalls a papal visit behind the scenes of which dirty money changes hands.
Protomartyr’s Detroit is grey in the daytime and pulsing with threat at night. On the careening ‘I Forgive You’, the eyes of a well-known local lawyer bear down from a ubiquitous billboard; here visual culture exists only to serve moneyed interest and opportunists. Appropriately, the members of Protomartyr rehearse and record in a freezing cold basement, employing a hardened post-punk playing style – replete with chilly, reverberating guitars and thumped floor toms – to suggest that they’ve bunkered themselves underground with the city’s great musical legacy, waiting for a safe time to surface.
The vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive are similarly hidden and wary. On the outskirts of Detroit Tom Hiddleston’s Adam lives at somewhat more of a remove from both the dangers of the city and the broader threats presented by twenty-first century life.
Jarmusch considers vampirism as a perspective from which we can view fears of out-living culture. Having lived for centuries, Hiddleston’s character surrounds himself with antique furniture and retro guitar gear. His friend and human link to the outside, Ian, dresses like the kind of throwback roadie who would be vying for an internship at Jack White’s Third Man record label. Whilst his characters are written affectionately and each frame exudes a heady allure, Jarmusch seems to sympathise with, and yet poke fun at, the warm cloistered lives of the hopelessly nostalgic. Sunglasses and ennui have rarely seemed so alluring as tenets of a lifestyle.
When Protomartyr’s Joe Casey stands on stage, he sways nonchalantly in a cheap suit and shades, bottle of beer in hand. Despite the snarling, sometimes snarky vocal delivery, there is something admirably austere and moralistic about his band’s music. The opening track of The Agent Intellect, titled ‘The Devil in his Youth’, locates in suburban America the seeds of a selfishness (and, eventually, an outright evil) bred by social advantage: “He grew up pale and healthy / With the blessings of his father.” Having ostensibly identified his white middle-class subject, Casey’s concise lyric isolates the strain of inherited entitlement that too often erupts into anger and hatred: “You will feel the way I do / You will hurt the way I do.” Living on the outskirts, it seems, dissociates and allows for an all-consuming egotism.
Protomartyr’s Detroit is a place where people are sapped, where being decent is an absurd uphill struggle – a Sisyphean slog not unlike the (decidedly more bourgeois) travails presented in the TV show Louie. Come to think of it, Joe Casey and Louis C. K. cultivate a similarly shabby aesthetic, an affectation with almost Beckettian pretentions to be unclean and therefore honest; scrubbing up would just be wrong. Triumphs must be hard-won and humility is required if people are to make meaningful connections.
The moral dimension to Protomartyr’s music suggests a kind of post-cultural survivalism. The physical and mental collapse narrated in ‘Why Does It Shake?’, their boldest composition yet, employs serious illness as a metaphor for the inevitable reckoning that awaits all individual and collective expectations that our lives and achievements will last forever.
Meanwhile, the visions of supine luxury make Only Lovers Left Alive a knowingly decadent film. The life of a vampire cannot be worldly and wise. Whilst Tom Hiddleston swans about with rare and expensive instruments, he embodies a class that hoards the relics of a culture rather than sharing them. Swinton’s character appeals for him to re-engage with the world and find new experiences to live for – even as her efforts take on a disquietingly colonial approach.
Vampirism means different things to Jarmusch. Yes, it’s a gorgeous fantasy of undying aesthetic appreciation. But it also allows a commentary on how age breeds fear of cultural degeneracy and dereliction. Hiddleston’s character expresses our fear of losing touch with art and culture, our anxiety that the moment one loses touch it is nigh-impossible to regain that connection. Like watching The Big Sleep, you think you’re following it and then suddenly it’s irretrievably gone.
Vampirism is not so much invasion as it is adjacency, or perhaps co-option; Hiddleston and Swinton’s characters live just near enough to Detroit to wallow in it as symbolic of an inexorable decline in standards, all whilst remaining untouched by the socio-economic implications of its decay. Vampirism in its literal, supernatural iteration requires such distance and seclusion, but the point seems to be that we all can feel that need to protect ourselves.
Both The Agent Intellect and Only Lovers Left Alive invoke Detroit as they consider the life-span of culture; one grapples with the problem of mortality, the other its very opposite. Somewhere in the middle, they both ask what it means to watch ourselves age in relation to culture… and panic as to what may come next. Ω