Over the course of a career, most artists and musicians go through multiple phases in their approach to the craft. The shifting nature of the business and the turbulent lifestyle it requires tend to bring fluctuating levels of focus to artists’ perspectives and personas. Some play the comedown machine, bringing their raucous behaviors and indulgences down to haunting, minimalist odes to despair and regret. Others may pull in the opposite direction by choosing to open things up, throw caution to the wind and work with a more carefree and unencumbered attitude. Regardless of the angle or the real-world circumstances that constitute these steps, these new approaches or genre exercises are usually a bit polarizing to fans, who either embrace the change of pace or dismiss it as an unpleasant blip on the radar, if not shunning the music entirely.
This year, it’s John McCauley’s turn to test the waters as his tumultuous recent past has been chronicled into the dozen tracks that comprise Negativity, his band Deer Tick’s fifth studio album and first since McCauley re-emerged from a trying year or so that saw his father sent away to prison for tax fraud and the dissolution of his engagement to fellow musical rabble-rouser Nikki Darlin of Those Darlins’. Deer Tick have typically always made music that packs a bit of an emotional punch, it’s just generally steered towards the emotions of joyful excess and indulgence, sentiments that especially resonated on their last release, 2011’s Divine Providence. When McCauley dealt listeners tales of longing, sadness, and regret, those attitudes were often housed in the perspectives of hard-luck and beat-upon fictional protagonists. So, in this regard, it’s a bit jarring to see McCauley singing a lot of this album from an autobiographical standpoint. Lines like “Used to know ya perhaps too well/All my emotions/Were a puzzle underneath your spell” carry a bit heavier of a weight, when aligned with the events in McCauley’s rear view mirror.
Like the title implies, the songs are burdened with contrarian and adverse subject matter. There’s the wrenching tale of a downward relationship (“Hey Doll”), the disappointing pangs of personal regret (“Mirror Walls”), and some nasty menace (“Pot of Gold”) to keep the vibe true throughout. It’s not all downers, though, as guitarist Ian O’Neil grabs the vocals and offers a sly take on the life of a traveling band in “The Dream’s In The Ditch” and ‘90’s pop star Vanessa Carlton pops in to charmingly duet with McCauley on the folksy, country-tinged composition “In Our Time”. The band also dials back the bar rock and pushes the sound into other avenues, at times aided by a soulful horn section courtesy of the renowned Latin collective, Grupo Fantasma and at others augmented by baroque piano chords. It doesn’t all pan out-the schmaltzy “Just Friends” sounds like a bad sitcom theme song-but Deer Tick get credit for moving their sound away from their wheelhouse and into new avenues.
Deer Tick made their reputation on the backs of their unbridled swagger, so it’s doubtful that they’ll completely abandon that ethos in favor of this more contemplative side. It’s an encouraging sign for their staying power, though, that McCauley and Co. can turn personal turmoil into an outlet for introspection and nuance. Negativity may not be their catchiest set of songs, but it’s undoubtedly their most heavy.