Protomartyr and the Power of Repetition

Aarik Danielsen

Detroit rockers Protomartyr waste zero time on their powerhouse 2017 album Relatives in Descent. The opener, “A Private Understanding,” is all detonated drums, buzzsaw guitars, and stormy sing-speak. Sounding like a black-and-blue-collar cousin of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, frontman Joe Casey strides through burned-out emotional landscapes and tip-toes over relational fault lines before repeating the words, “She’s just dying to reach you,” no less than 19 times.

Repetition can be the refuge of a lazy songwriter or the artist who has fallen in love with one great idea and can’t get free of it. But Protomartyr proves that, in the right hands, repetition is a powerful tool. It chisels away at listeners’ defenses, clearing space for something real and profound to reside. And it has a spiritual power too.

Consider some other moments of effective repetition. Throughout one of this decade’s great indie-rock songs, “Down Down the Deep River,” Okkervil River bandleader Will Sheff delivers variations on the phrase, “It’s not alright, not even close to alright.” Every time Sheff forms the words, he conveys something about the diminishing returns of nostalgia. In his soul classic “Let’s Get Married,” Al Green insists he has to “stop fooling around.” He’s not just trying to sway his lover into believing he can change—he’s trying to convince himself. Each invocation is more breathless, and less confident, than the one before.

On “A Private Understanding,” Protomartyr shines a signal into the sky, desperately seeking connection, a human response, any response at all. They’re just trying to reach you. Casey’s delivery doesn’t change, but the musical currents beneath him do, swelling like waves that threaten to sink the boat and pull us all under. The phrase “She’s just dying to reach you” returns as a bookend in the album’s closing moments. Protomartyr has one impression it wants to leave, one reminder for the road: something has been severed and it’s up to us to reach back and restore it.

The Apostle Paul understood the power of repetition. Just trying to reach the Philippian church, he found himself covering the same, well-worn ground. He had every right to grow frustrated, or just move on. Instead he affirmed, “It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.” Paul knew the gospel should be like a song stuck in our head. Its rhythms move us along and, when its melody burrows deep enough, it will roll off our tongues almost reflexively.

Every covenant conversation we have—with a spouse, within a church, the very dialogue we enter into with God’s Word—involves rehashing certain topics and rehearsing certain truths. It takes a lifetime to become who we should be in Christ, and we need to return to the heart of our faith often. Within these relationships, repeating yourself is among the kindest things you can do—for others, and the good of your own soul. 

It takes a lifetime to become who we should be in Christ, and we need to return to the heart of our faith often.

British preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones claimed many of our problems arise because we listen to ourselves far more than we talk to ourselves. We repeat the same lies without realizing it: that we are not worth loving, or that we are good enough to save ourselves. The only way to fight back against those subconscious echoes is by preaching to ourselves. Those sermons will contain truths that are essential, yet sound unnatural to our ears. That we are broken but loved. That our hope in Christ will not put us to shame. That we only become free once we are bound to the right things.

The seasons of our lives change, but the truth doesn’t. As in “A Private Understanding,” each repetition will carry the same essential tune, but strike a different chord.

In conversations with myself, certain themes return to the surface. I remember I’m not defined by sins I’ve committed or sins committed against me. I’m a treasured son, a co-heir with Jesus. Often in my writing, I emphasize the dignity we all possess as image-bearers. I remind myself and others that double standards choke out gospel witness. I fight to convey how all the beauty in the world is but a whisper of the Creator and his character.

Our natural response to a familiar gospel is to nod and say, “Yeah, I know that.” But that’s the worst thing we can do. We may know gospel truth in our heads, but its beauty often misses our hearts. We have to fight to hear it as if for the first time.

So if I repeat myself, please don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one. It’s no trouble for me. I’m just trying to reach you. I’m just trying to reach you. I’m just trying to reach you.

Topics: Music