Rhode Island’s rowdy rockers get completely serious and unapologetically personal on their most refined record to date
Deer Tick’s refreshing transparency returns for another album that both reflects and accepts the world they currently inhabit. But in contrast to the group’s hard rocking 2011 Divine Providence, which celebrated the dirty days of touring, Negativity falls somewhere in the post-party, where hangovers meet somber realities. Singer/songwriter/guitarist John McCauley addresses the causes of his well-publicized downward spiral — his called-off engagement, his father’s imprisonment for tax fraud, substance abuse, the pitfalls of nonstop touring — in 12 epically intimate tracks. More than a return to their earlier style, Deer Tick’s fifth studio release is an admission, a man coming to terms with what he’s done. These alt-everything musicians (rock, indie, country, blues, folk — you name it) from Rhode Island abandon their vices and present a sobering set of tracks on their aptly titled new album.
Negativity brings back producer Steve Berlin, who worked with McCauley on the Diamond Rugs side project. Best known as the saxophonist of Los Lobos and formerly the Blasters, Berlin chose the 12 strongest of 30 demos presented to him by the group, pushing them to rework, rewrite, and further develop the tracks. The result is at the same time forthcoming and distant, as though the sentiment the record embodies is so personal that it can never really be understood, let alone contained. But Deer Tick isn’t going soft on us. This album is as hard as Divine Providence, just in a different way. With this release, the group compiles something impossibly interesting and attractive, with each track introducing an element of surprise, be it exploring genres, a collaboration, or new depth.
Opener “The Rock” walks the line between heart-wrenching and desperate without clinging to irritating emo tendencies. It’s true and honest, a sorrowful lament of a shattering relationship, balanced beautifully by rolling horns. Guitarist Ian O’Neil reminds us that Deer Tick isn’t just the McCauley Show with a track of his own, penning “The Dream’s in the Ditch,” in which he addresses what happens when the suggested glamour of touring gives way to repetitive lonesomeness. For a band that’s been almost exclusively on the road leading up to 2013, touring can quickly become a means to an end that may never arrive.
The record gets darker as it progresses. The bluesy and immediate “Trash” brings a moody guitar solo that ends the track after a wailing McCauley submits to his woes. “Thyme” entrances with a different sound altogether, layering lyrics with equally hypnotic rhythms to create an eerie, nightmarish reality.
McCauley’s current girlfriend, singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton, appears on the duet “In Our Time,” where she and McCauley trade twangy country memories of a marriage going stale over the years, while “Pot of Gold” pulls out some harder licks and yowling reminiscent of the last record. “Big House,” about a friend who just couldn’t quit heroin, appropriately ends the track list. McCauley began composing it for Deer Tick’s first LP, trying to finish the song for each consecutive album since. Now, as the completed track rounds out Negativity, McCauley finds himself climbing out of his own darkness.
Despite the sensitive nature of the songs, Deer Tick continue to bear incredible confidence — determined to make it through this admission in one breath, getting it all out so that the past can no longer haunt. This isn’t the sort of album that you’ve got down after one go. But keep listening. Deer Tick will make you believe.
Negativity is out today via Partisan Records.