Deer Tick's 2011 album Divine Providence was a raucous, drunken affair, with songs of barroom debauchery that seemed more like exaggerated character sketches than autobiographical snippets from main songwriter John J. McCauley's life experience. While the band's life on the road has probably resulted in some legitimate hard-living, hard-drinking times, the presentation was just a little too emphatic. It was endless stories of drinking and starting trouble, hazy and overblown lyrics tucked into raw Stones/Stooges-influenced bar rock. Its follow-up, Negativity, has a similarly larger-than-life approach, but drops the drunken antics for more dark, depressive material, presented in a way that's hard to ignore. Though influenced by McCauley's engagement being unceremoniously called off, Negativity isn't a typical breakup record. Opening with the multi-part suite "The Rock," McCauley navigates through an eerie intro into a howling rave-up of bawdy minor-key rock laced with melancholic harmonies and unexpected bursts of horns. The song builds into a lively roll, though there's a palpable darkness always at the core, "the rock" in this song possibly meaning a returned or rejected ring. "Mirror Walls" embodies the weariness of life on the road, with lyrics that sound written on motel stationery moments after getting a breakup call from thousands of miles away. The sad-hearted Americana moments of Negativity find the midway point between Springsteen's darkest hours and a drunken late-night jam session with Goats Head Soup-era Stones and the Replacements at their most sad-hearted and melodic. The sounds aren't all dark, and shift gears frequently. Songs like "Trash" and "Hey Doll" offer a big-band reading of jaunty pop not unlike mid-'80s Saturday Night Live band interlude jams and "In Our Time" is a lighthearted honky tonk duet between McCauley and Vanessa Carlton. The piano pop of "Just Friends" has a remarkable early Billy Joel feel to it, with a chorus that would fit as a theme song to an early-'80s sitcom. Though Negativity bounces around a little, its tormented core and multifaceted musical approach make it one of Deer Tick's most consistent and enjoyable albums. Its exaggerated, larger-than-life expressions serve to either keep McCauley's demons at bay or drag them out into the light, with both scenarios resulting in some of his stronger songs.
by Fred Thomas