Rolling Stone gave Protomartyr‘s third album The Agent Intellect four out of five stars. Pitchfork gave it a 8.2 rating, and Consequence of Sound thought it worthy of an A-. And somehow, I feel like I just walked into a movie theater during the credits and everyone is clapping. I feel like I missed something. I’ll admit, it took an annoying amount of Facebook shares and reposted reviews to spark my interest in Protomartyr, who on paper seemed like they would fit my taste profile. The term “post punk indie” was tossed around and some comparisons to Ian Curtis of Joy Division, too. At first glance, it seemed moody enough for me to say yes to, but at second and third glance I’m left shrugging my shoulders.
An ambitious four piece, The Agent Intellect is Protomartyr’s third album in three years. An impressive feat, yes. However, after an appropriately chosen three listens, I spent half the time waiting for something to happen and the other half wondering if Rolling Stone and I were listening to the same album. To be fair, I like the album. It’s fine. But that’s exactly what’s wrong with it. What sounds like a collection of early 2000’s indie B-Sides reflective of, say, Louis XIV (remember them? Yeah, no one else does, either). Intellect rides a steady trajectory, rarely seizing the moment and instead primes for the aforementioned moment without resolve, release or that thing. Perhaps it’s the lack of explosive, emotive moments that makes this album unique. Maybe we’re saturated in riding the roller coaster to the point where albums like Intellect seem refreshing. The songs run together like a high school watercolor but maintain a respectable cohesion. The drums on “Cowards Starve” sound like the drums in “Boyce or Boice” and “Why Does it Shake?” The vocals are somehow consistently flashy in their flatness. After riding the stagnant wave, a track like “Clandestine Times” wakes you up not by being particularly loud or outrageous but for being the song. Yes, it sounds like something ripped right off of The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, but it’s unexpected in context and is the bloodiest, messiest on the album, making it for me the most sincere moment on The Agent Intellect. It is after this track that the album adopts a slightly more unmerciful tone and at some point sounds as if Protomartyr are actually feeling something instead of just making sounds about feeling something.
The truth is, when it comes to music I much rather feel passionate about hating or loving something than be unmoved. I wanted to inhale Agent Intellect and wanted to crave more of it. But really it comes down to being challenged and surprised. If I were at a house party, I could hear this fading into the background over beer bottles and conversation; a non-intrusive soundtrack to a night you probably won’t remember, because the party was only okay.