Arguably, Deer Tick could easily be considered alt-country’s answer to early Guns N’ Roses—not in terms of music, but in terms of attitude. For years, the band’s raucous, party-till-you-can’t-stand-up persona has entertained fans almost as much as the liquor-soaked music they’ve played. So it seems just a little bit ironic that their fifth release Negativity, while maintaining the façade of drunken country-punk, is actually their most sober and focused work to date.
While frontman John McCauley has opened up recently about the struggles surrounding the material on this album—including dealing with (surprise) substance abuse, a failed engagement and the incarceration of his father—it seems equally ironic that while the album deals honestly with some very raw emotions, the music comes across as surprisingly accessible, almost hopeful, even. Taking an educated guess based on what I’m hearing musically and what I know about Deer Tick, this record sounds like what happens when someone stops self-medicating and is forced to start dealing with the issues at hand instead of avoiding them. Indeed, with Negativity, it feels like we are listening in on a cathartic moment, a moment of grappling with reality and coming to grips with it—howbeit not so private as to make the listener uncomfortable.
Perhaps the most vivid and tangible example of this dynamic is in the horn-filled blues track “Trash,” in which McCauley rambles, “I don’t dig the food / I don’t want the drink / I’ll dry out in style / I’ll waste all my ink”—almost a clear admission that he’s trading boozing away his troubles for writing about them. Also found in these lyrics is an apparent desire for a renewed interest in life: “Where is the romance that I used to know / I wanna fall in love again with the open road.”
When I say the music is accessible—well, let’s just say that McCauley and Deer Tick have laid all of this getting-real onto a musical palate that is remarkably “poppy” for an alternative act. “The Dream’s In the Ditch” comes across as almost bouncy, while “In Our Time,” is a light alt-country ditty that is nearly flat-out positive amidst all the “negativity,” featuring guest vocals from McCauley’s current girlfriend, pop songstress Vanessa Carlton.
So with all this apparent contradiction floating around—positivity in an album titled Negativity, music that is emotionally raw yet accessible—the big question is, does it work? Happily, it does. Don’t ask me how. Where 2010’s Divine Providence revealed a band that was drifting, perhaps feeling the effects of their collective lifestyle, Negativity is remarkably clear-headed and solid, demonstrating McCauley’s true abilities as a songwriter. As such, it’s the best collection of music Deer Tick have come out with in quite some time.