Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
Sometimes everything's better when it's falling down around you, when you've found that sweet spot of reckless abandon and what feels like bliss - however temporarily held - that allows you to fire rounds into the ceiling's plaster and work your nights into their own personal oblivions. You can convince yourself that it's tickertape, that you're the best life of the party that's ever been seen and that it's everyone else with the problem. Deer Tick's John McCauley has made his living writing about people who had little fear of the consequences of their actions, but were always t-boned by them every time they crossed through those fateful intersections. They've never been blind to what the hard-living was doing to them and what it would eventually accomplish, but they've never been able to deny their sins. The urge for them always ruled.
With the Providence, Rhode Island band's fifth album, "Negativity," McCauley and Deer Tick have come to some revelations. They have come out on the other side of a six-year bender - which began with the 2007 album, "War Elephant" - and seen the ravages of not only what they've done, but what some of their loved ones have done. McCauley is personally looking at himself, considering the piles of cocaine that he went through as an everyday user for nearly two years, the many shows performed while wasted and the relationships that he's not only harmed but obliterated.
"I wasn't the good person that I imagined I was," he said about the inspiration for the record. "I caused a lot of problems.
"I met a really amazing woman who kinda made me realize the consequences of my actions were just getting bigger and bigger. My relationship has made me want to be better. I just want to be around for a long time. A lot of those days, I just felt like a waste and I didn't truly recognize it. There's a lot of time that I just don't remember at all and it's kinda frightening."
"Negativity," recorded in Portland in February of 2013, with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin (a collaborator of McCauley's on his 2012 Diamond Rugs project) at the helm, was written entirely over the course of a year that saw McCauley's father get indicted by the IRS and sent to prison for tax fraud - a traumatic event that caused intense strain on his parents' marriage. He writes about it in two memorable spots on an album that shows a wide range of introspection and vulnerability that has up to now been shown sparingly. Those touches have always been there and they've long been the secret ingredients to Deer Tick songs. For all of the drinking and partying, it's been the tenderness in McCauley's writing that has always stood out and is the best it's ever been on songs like, "Mr. Sticks," "Big House" and "In Our Time."
"Mr. Sticks" was entitled for the origin-unknown childhood nickname that McCauley's father has kept into his adult life. It was on the vanity license plate he had on his Corvette. McCauley describes his dad as a prankster and a storyteller and that his parents were always happy, until his tax troubles began. "In Our Time," McCauley sings a duet with Vanessa Carlton, from his parent's perspective, as if they were reflecting on what they'd built, on the happier times and what was happening to them. He sings, "You know I never meant to sink to such depths/Why would I jeopardize what we built behind that fence" but the kicker comes a bit later when Carlton sings, "It's a pain to see, but you're still my man," and McCauley follows, "It's a pain to see, but I'm still your man."
"That whole year, I'd never seen my parents like that," he said. "They wouldn't talk to each other. I guess they must really love each other."
The album's lead-off track features McCauley dealing with a failed engagement, with the the band (guitarist Ian O'Neill, drummer Dennis Ryan, bassist Christopher Ryan and keyboardist Rob Crowell) showing immediately that this isn't the Tick we've known. Intricate and beautiful in its exalting glory, the song prays for renewal, for the healing of a beaten, darkened heart.
This is an album that couldn't have happened without the largely hell-raising, blowing through the last calls at every bar records "War Elephant," Born On Flag Day," "Black Dirt Sessions" or "Divine Providence." It couldn't have happened without some awfulness descending. There would have been no meat to build around the bone. There would have been no swollen eyes staring back from a mirror. McCauley deals with a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to himself as having a disposition of a "wasted savant" in the song, "Trash." It's an aftermath song and it's one of the spoiled romance of a night and even of a life that's got a long way to go still, when you wake up, hear the garbage trucks banging loudly in the alley and realize that everything you did the night - or all those previous days -- before is going to make this another hard day. "Negativity" is a reminder about beginnings, just as much as it's a reminder about endings and those thorny paths that get a person to both.
Deer Tick Official Site