"What the hell happened, man?" is not a question you need to ask John McCauley after listening to Deer Tick's latest, Negativity. You already have the answer. When you're already known for spinning hard luck stories, life kicking the shit out of you is a damn good excuse to start telling your own. The writing and recording of the new album seems to have come at and been a part of a point of catharsis for McCauley and the band as a whole. Divine Providence opened with "The Bump" chorus of, "We're full grown men / But we act like kids / We'll face the music / The next time we roll in," and stayed balls out bar rockabilly all the way through. The two years since have seen McCauley face splitting with fiancee Nikki Kvarnes of Those Darlins, and his father pleading guilty to tax fraud charges, and realization that his life was spinning dangerously toward out of control. He responded by channeling it all into laying himself bare on Negativity.
Nearly any next step would have been considered more mature after the slapdash, rollicking romp of Divine Providence, as fun a ride as it was. Even beyond the introspective subject matter, Negativity has an entirely different feel. Don't worry; McCauley's singularly gritty rasp hasn't suddenly gone silky smooth. This is still pure Deer Tick. There's no lack of energy and it's a roller coaster ride of emotion and style—the extreme switch from Deervana holdover "Pot of Gold" to the sweet but mournful (it's about a friend who just couldn't kick heroin) folk finish "Big House" is enough to give any listener aural whiplash. And that's just the final two tracks. Alternative country as a category attempts to encompass an impossibly wide range, and Negativity is bound and determined to cover as broad a stretch as possible over the course of its twelve tracks.
Deer Tick premiered the full album live at their Newport Folk Festival closing night post show back in July. The unpredictable shifts between tracks could only have been amplified in the setting of the Newport Blues Cafe, played to a crowd familiar with only a limited portion of the new material. Starting off surprisingly subdued, "The Rock" compares the breakdown of his and Kvarnes' relationship to a rock thrown through a window. The implication that their engagement is what began the unravelling also seems to be buried in there. But he's only allowed to meander introspectively for the first minute before things pick up as if to shake him from self-indulgent wallowing; the rest of the band breaks in and things get rolling with the addition of brass courtesy of Grupo Fantasma. It's not the only track to focus on the breakup; joined by "Just Friends," "Mirror Walls," and "Hey Doll" further on, it is obviously a main material focus point. Heartbreak is a well-traveled path musically, and each of the tracks tackles the topic from a different angle. Still, this particular third of the record is arguably its weakest material. They stay just this side of cheesy schmaltz with Deer Tick's original instrumentation augmented by Grupo Fantasma and Jimmy Russell (The Quick and Easy Boys) on lead guitar, and the fact that McCauley fully commits to each. But it's a fine line.
There are a few other themes explored, including his father's arrest in "Mr. Sticks" and "In Our Time." The first is one of the highlights of the record, a "prison ballad" for his father whose nickname is Sticks. The second is a duet with his girlfriend Vanessa Carlton (yes, that piano pop singer Vanessa Carlton). The country tune casts McCauley as his father and Carlton as his mother, gathering the pieces together after suffering the heavy blow and figuring out how to move forward.
McCauley isn't the only voice you hear out of Deer Tick on Negativity either. Guitarist Ian O'Neill is the writer and singer of "The Dream's In The Ditch," which hits on his frustration with the music industry, a theme hit on in "The Curtain" and "Trash" as well. Drummer Ryan Dennis takes over vocals for the sleazy organ psych tune "Thyme," sandwiched between the Van Morrison tinged, horn-heavy, 3/4-time signature jam "Trash" and "In Our Time."
Five records in, Deer Tick is still finding ways to play around with their sound, leaving them plenty of directions to go from here. Despite it's title and heavy subject matter, Negativity does not find the band wallowing around in despair. Instead, it shows them working through it and coming out the other side, ready to take things to the road again. They'll be making their way around the States and up through Canada in the next two months on their tour supporting the album. Negativity was released on September 24, 2013. for purchase through Partisan Records, but you can also find it streaming on Soundcloud or Spotify.
1. The Rock
2. The Curtain
3. Just Friends
4. The Dream's In The Ditch
5. Mirror Walls
6. Mr. Sticks
9. In Our Time (feat. Vanessa Carlton)
10. Hey Doll
11. Pot Of Gold
12. Big House