John McCauley and Deer Tick have long walked a tightwire between total despair and fractured resilience, but Negativity represents a heroic leap forward on virtually all fronts for the Providence, Rhode Island-based band. Recorded earlier this year in Portland, Oregon with legendary producer/musician Steve Berlin (The Blasters, Los Lobos, and last year’s McCauley side project, Diamond Rugs), the album – Deer Tick‘s fifth full-length studio release, and follow-up to 2011’s acclaimed Divine Providence – is McCauley’s most personal work thus far as well as the band’s most undeniable and universal, their famously freewheeling musical approach refined here into a gloriously cohesive whole.
Negativity was penned over the course of a genuinely eventful 2012, an annus horribilus in which McCauley’s father pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and tax fraud, ultimately leading to prison. “Mr. Sticks” – which takes its title from the senior McCauley’s childhood nickname – is “about my father going to jail and all the things he may miss,” but when the son sings “With a hug and a kiss/You may say goodbye to all you’ve ever known,” you get the sense he might be talking to himself.
For if that seemingly untenable situation weren’t enough, McCauley’s own personal life was equally shambolic, his notoriously excessive behavior and impossible lifestyle escalating to the point where his imminent wedding engagement was finally called off. Like any true artist, he channeled the anger, melancholy, and regret into his work, resulting in what can be safely declared his finest collection of songs to date, impassioned and interior and increasingly mature, both as expression of emotion as well as pure unadulterated songcraft.
“This record is me pulling myself out of the funk I was in,” McCauley says. “I wouldn’t say I was depressed, I think it was more than that. 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.”
Drugs – hard drugs – figure significantly throughout the album, much as they did in McCauley’s life itself. “Big House” – which dates back to McCauley’s earliest songwriting efforts – tells of a friend’s cyclical battles with heroin, while “Pot of Gold” is “a stream of consciousness recollection of what went through my head and what kinds of misadventures I got myself into when I was doing crack. It also touches on the guilt I felt when I came down from the high.”
Deer Tick – sounding as sure-footed as one would expect from a band who have spent a couple of hundred nights each year on stage for more than half a decade – more than match the strength of the songs by taking a more detailed approach than on some of the breakneck recordings of their past. From the sparkling baroque pop of “The Dream’s In The Ditch” (penned by guitarist Ian O’Neil) to the full-blown Memphis showstopper, “Trash,” Negativity sees the Tick bridging boozy punk, AM gold, bar band blues, country soul, and whatever else catches their fancy into their own profoundly American rock ‘n’ roll. Additional sonic color comes courtesy of magnificently arranged brass accompaniment by Austin, Texas’s GRAMMY®-winning Latin fusion collective, Grupo Fantasma.
While Deer Tick have been rightfully hailed for their raucous rave-ups and substance-fueled fervor, Negativity places considerable focus on the band’s nuanced and tender side, with notable highlights including the wrenching breakup ballad, “Hey Doll,” and the stunning “In Our Time.” Written from his father’s perspective, the song is a timeless country tearjerker featuring McCauley’s good friend, singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton singing duet vocals in the “role” of his mom.
“My parents have had a long and seemingly healthy marriage since before I was born,” McCauley says. “That whole year, as I watched my family deal with my dad’s looming sentencing date, I’d never seen my parents like that. This was the first time I ever saw them really struggle. Lots of silence and lots of yelling. But despite all of it, they’re still married. I guess they must really love each other.”
Love, McCauley well knows, can save a man. Bottom was definitely in sight when the proverbial good woman pulled him from the brink, giving him the inner strength to both carry on as well as to imbue Negativity with far more than just endless sadness and suffering.
“I met a really amazing woman who made me realize the consequences of my actions were just getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “Without her, I don’t think I would have changed anything and that’s frightening as hell.”
“I guess I’ll catch you on the other side,” McCauley sings in the album’s final moment, a promise that, despite the pain and fatalism and yes, negativity, he’s here for the long haul. Heartbreaking, fist-pumping, and ultimately life-affirming, Negativity stands as an indisputable high water mark for Deer Tick – a defining collection from a rock ‘n’ roll band driven by an undying faith in the power of redemption and transcendence.