If 2012 was a year Deer Tick’s John McCauley ultimately would like to forget — and there are plenty of reasons why he might — it’s going to be hard to do.
Deer Tick’s new album, Negativity, recorded in February and set for a September 2013 release, deals with much of what happened during McCauley’s horrible year. His engagement crumbled (the first lines of the opening track, “The Rock,” intoned three times: “My love for you is old but new/I give the rock to only you/It is the piece that can break through/The window of our love”). His father went to prison for conspiracy and tax fraud (from “Mr. Sticks”: “With a hug and a kiss/You may say goodbye to all you've ever known”). And McCauley sunk deeper into cocaine and alcohol addiction (listen to “Pot of Gold,” “Big House,” and again, “The Rock”).
While every Deer Tick record has its breakthrough moments of rock-and-roll transcendence, nobody puts one on expecting to be uplifted immediately. But you probably shouldn’t take the album title, Negativity, as prescriptive. “I had written a song called ‘Negativity’ that didn’t make the album,” McCauley told the Advocate. “Actually, we didn’t even finish recording it — there was something missing from the song. But it’s such a great title. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s supposed to be this grand, ultimate statement, kind of in a funny way. When we reveal the album artwork, it’s actually pretty humorous. It’s definitely a pretty dark album that deals with a lot of negative subject matter, but the title isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously.”
Negativity, recorded in Portland, Ore., with producer and Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin (who’d previously worked with McCauley on his 2012 Diamond Rugs project), has piano ballads, four-chord guitar rock and big Springsteen-worthy choruses. There’s a recognizable, healthy pall of reverb, tremolo-ed guitars and two-part vocal harmonies over most of it. With a great, cohesive band of players behind him, McCauley’s horsefly rasp cuts through the mix more than on previous records; he’s not hiding anything. Despite the title, it doesn’t sound all that negative (“I left the porch light on in case you showed up/I cut my credit cards and tried to grow up/Tell me you can keep me in this world/Tell me I can eat your dirt and come up with a pearl,” McCauley sings on “Mirror Walls.” That’s kinda positive.)
McCauley’s troubles didn’t get in the way of his songwriting; just the opposite. “I’m a pretty sporadic writer in general,” McCauley said. “But I found that the songs for this album came a little bit easier than usual. I had a lot of frustration and anger to draw from. It was somewhat therapeutic for me. It really helped to clear my mind and get my life in order, on the personal side of it.” When it came time to record, McCauley was already in a slightly better place. “What I was going through: the dust had kind of settled by the time we went in to record. The recording session was right at the end of my hard drug use.” In the studio, Berlin helped pare McCauley’s stockpile of songs down to a manageable number, re-shaping some of them as needed. It was often difficult, McCauley admitted, for the band to give up control to Berlin, but it ended up being a positive experience. “It was a new way to work for us, and ultimately we enjoyed it very much,” he said. “I think Steve knocked it out of the park.” When recording was done, McCauley quit drinking too. “Right now, I’m feeling really free and clear. The recording process was one of the final steps of my rebirth.”
One track, “In Our Time,” is a duet with singer Vanessa Carlton, who scored radio hits in the early aughts (2002’s “A Thousand Miles,” for example) before going through her own sort of artistic transformation. They’ve been dating for awhile (“Not so many people know,” McCauley said). They met through My Morning Jacket’s Patrick Hallahan, who played on Carlton’s Rabbits on the Run album, and initially wanted to write together, although it didn’t work out. “Then our relationship started, and she was coming up during the recording,” McCauley said. “I had that song [“In Our Time”], which wasn’t written as a duet. I wanted her to sing something on the album, and I didn’t have to change a word. It just worked out well as a duet, just by giving her that verse.” (Carlton was also recently interviewed for a New York profile of Stevie Nicks, who’s been through some of the same issues facing McCauley before he sobered up.)
Inevitably, some will say the new album represents a toned-down Deer Tick, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Still, McCauley doesn’t hear it that way.
“There are moments on there of loud and obnoxious rock and roll,” McCauley said. “We’ll definitely do more hard rock stuff in the future. I think the writing’s really good on the record, and I think that’s what’s most important.”
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Deer Tick, July 7, 7:30 p.m., $39, $59, Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, Route 44, 20 Greenwoods Road, Norfolk, (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.com.