Deeper know tragedy better than most. While recording their sophomore album Auto-Pain, guitarist Mike Clawson left the band due to deteriorating relationships with the Chicago group’s other three members. Later, after their record was finished and the post-punk act was touring in Europe, they received the news that Clawson had taken his own life. Throughout this catastrophic period, Deeper decided not to let Clawson’s passing derail their tour and release schedule, instead using them as a way to pay tribute to his contributions to the band and speak out about mental health (as they did with Paste earlier this year).
As lead singer and guitarist Nic Gohl mentioned in his interview with our own Lizzie Manno, Auto-Pain was completed prior to Clawson’s death, but the album’s lyrics, written as a stream of consciousness, took on a completely different meaning. And it’s hard to listen to them any other way: Some depict graphic images of self-harm and violence (“Forced to set yourself on fire tonight / You shouldn’t count on the sun” from “Run,” or “I just want you to feel sick / Cause you’re better as you’re lying on the bathroom floor” from “Lake Song”) while others are a bit more abstract (“Is it any wonder / I feel so gray” from “Esoteric”). Auto-Pain is an album built on hues of blacks and grays, depicting a shadowy, sinister world. Clawson’s suicide turns those already gloomy colors into something several shades darker.
But despite the amplified bleak lyrical content, Auto-Pain is a triumphant album. Its spring-loaded, skeletal guitar riffs matched with Gohl’s in-your-face speak-singing feel tremendously cathartic, as if this is how they chose to channel their grief. The initially gentle opening guitar strums of “Esoteric,” which grow in intensity like a heart suddenly beating faster, quickly transform into a punchy, icy guitar riff that sets the tone for the rest of the record. Two songs later, lead single “This Heat” enters guns blazing with a massive guitar riff that keeps building as Gohl’s anthemic “You’re crossing a line” refrain first hits. If Deeper ever get to play the big venues they’re clearly aiming for with their sophomore record, “This Heat” is going to be the song that aims for the nosebleeds.
Things slow down at times when the band experiments with drawn-out tempos and synthesizers, but they never lose their self-inflicted tense atmosphere even as the instrumentals lighten up a bit. “I just want you to listen” Gohl croons on the ’80s post-punk indebted “Lake Song” before a simple plucked guitar bridge takes the song to a surprisingly gorgeous place. But the band hits their stride as things pick up a bit: A mix between New York glam à la Public Practice and the hazy synth-rock from Preoccupations, side two of Auto-Pain vacillates between no-frills rock and tender, heartfelt synth-y, midtempo post-punk that sends Gohl’s voice soaring. At points, he sounds like a post-punk Brandon Flowers singing over a supergroup made up of Omni and Parquet Courts members.
On an album that never lets up, “4U” is the undisputed highlight. Beginning with ominous synths, it swiftly transitions into an anxious guitar line that feels ready to burst wide open from the first time it repeats. It’s eventually answered by a dueling riff before Gohl quietly enters, pleading, “For you / Listen / Its constant / Praise.” But that tension can’t last forever: The whole thing blows up in the chorus as frenetic percussion and Gohl’s anxious vocals hit a fever pitch. It’s a thrilling moment on an album filled to the brim with them.
While Auto-Pain takes on a completely different meaning in the wake of Clawson’s departure from the band and suicide, it’s a miracle that we’re able to hear it at all: “We didn’t really know if we could still write Deeper songs without Mike,” Gohl told Paste earlier this year. But they’re obviously still talented musicians in their own right, apt leaders of the angrier subsection of the bustling Chicago indie scene. They may have been unsure how to initially carry on without Clawson, but the end result is a stunning indie rock tour de force. And what a better way to honor a fallen bandmate than with one of the best indie records of 2020.
Steven Edelstone is the former album reviews editor at Paste and has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and more. All he wants is to get a shot and beer combo once this all blows over. You can follow him on Twitter.