There comes a time in every moody artist’s career when he or she has a “fuck it” moment – that point where they’re exhausted with being brooding and emotive and just want to have a damn good time playing rock n’ roll. Divine Providence, the fourth release from Rhode Island outfit Deer Tick, is band leader John McCauley’s ode to not giving a damn.
Making such an album can be a risky and polarizing move. It’s a natural fit for some, like Bright Eyes’ romping new record The People’s Key, and downright embarrassing for others, like Weezer’s aptly-titled 2002 foray into metal Maladroit. Fortunately for Deer Tick, Divine Providence is the former. The album is more than a natural fit for the blues-folk act – it’s a whiskey-soaked rebirth that captures the band in their prime.
That’s not to belittle their past work. Deer Tick’s 2007 debut War Elephant is a solid collection of punk-tinged folk and country tunes that was interesting and accessible enough to win the affections of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who interviewed them on his web-based music show (which, apparently, exists). But in an alt-country scene ruled by the likes of Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams, Deer Tick’s past three records did little to steal the spotlight from their better-established peers.
What has distinguished Deer Tick, for whom McCauley has been the only consistent member, is the raw energy of their reputed live shows. So maybe his time spent playing with Middle Brother – his indie pseudo-super group with Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez – convinced him to embrace Deer Tick as a five-piece band rather than a solo moniker. Divine Providence has McCauley sharing both the mic and the bottle of bourbon that’s nursed the laments of Deer Tick’s past work. The album’s best moments, like “Let’s All Go To The Bar,” drop their over-produced country twang in favor of the chorus-chanting ruckus of classic punk acts like the Adicts and the self-destructive mischief of the Violent Femmes.
While guitarist Ian O’Neil and drummer Dennis Ryan take lead vocals for the first time on a few tracks, McCauley’s rough-hewn snarl will always be the centerpiece of Deer Tick’s sound. The backing-band instrumentation on their past albums has been rich and well-executed, but has also competed with his vocals. On Divine Providence, the music is better suited: the songs are either as big and reckless as McCauley’s voice (“Something to Brag About”) or pared down to just accent it (the haunting “Electric”). As a singer, McCauley hits new heights of volatility: He sounds so delightfully unhinged on songs like “The Bump” that lines like “One night with me/Will mess you up!” leave you reaching to wipe the spit off your face.
But above all, Deer Tick’s transition to a big, fun mess of a band works because McCauley didn’t compromise any of what made him a great songwriter in the past. He’s as broken-hearted, introspective and self-loathing as ever – the album’s odes to sex and alcoholism are balanced by sobering admissions like “I don’t want you to forget/I’m the problem/You’re the test.” But he’s also learning that it’s a lot more fun to let your friends in on your turmoil -- misery does, after all, love company.