Parquet Courts are one of the few bands that can sing about politics with humor and eloquence, and without coming across as esoteric. Sure, their most recent album, Wide Awake!, is a verbose, referential call to reorganize systemically corrupt power structures. But even if you aren’t able to pick up on their brainy turns of phrase, you can sense the agitation in each taut riff or the inertia of the pounding rhythm section. The songs are visceral and nervy; you can feel the frustration in your gut. But they’re also intellectual, and you might have to play each track a few times before untangling what exactly it is that vocalist Andrew Savage is ranting about in his signature deadpan sing-speaking candor.
I saw Parquet Courts perform on a boat last night, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. I’ll try to keep the nautical puns to a minimum. It was cloudy and raining — so pretty much the opposite of ideal boat weather — but oddly fitting for the the whole surreal spectacle of cruising around Manhattan, listening to punk songs about protest and political strife.
The band launched into their set with “Total Football,” the raucous espresso shot that opens Wide Awake! Just about everyone scream sang in unison when they got to the “Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive!” part. Over punchy riffs, Savage’s venomous words toppled out, threatening to spill over the brim; he approached this boiling point a few times, but rather than fall over, he punctuated the song with a rebel yell: “And Fuck! Tom! Brady!” It set the tone for the rest of the evening, and Parquet Courts played the majority of the songs off of the new record and peppered in some old ones (“Light Up Gold II,” “Psycho Structures,” and “Master Of My Craft,” into “Borrowed Time,”) to a swaying (‘cause it was a boat) crowd of enthusiasts.
Live, Andrew Savage’s vitriolic vocals are pronounced and biting, and bassist Sean Yeaton navigates between serpentine bass lines to full-bodied funk ones with ease and intense volition (which makes sense, considering his former post-hardcore band, Daniel Striped Tiger). Max Savage’s breakneck drumming is somehow faster in real life than on the record, which I didn’t think was humanly possible. Austin Brown, who looked like a cross between Thurston Moore and a 1970s movie star clad in a tuxedo (adorned by a Mardi Gras bead necklace, of course), took over the vocals for the prettier songs, like “Mardi Gras Beads” and my personal favorite, “Dear Ramona” off of Sunbathing Animal. I’d thought all of this impressive musicianship was in part a product of Danger Mouse’s highly saturated, cranked up production, but it was somehow tighter and more intense live.
I’ve been a fan of Andrew Savage’s music since discovering his former Denton, TX-based band, Teenage Cool Kids, in 2011, and from there I became a full fledged Parquet Courts diehard. But I had never seen them live before last night, or experienced the energy of an endless sea of people moshing to songs calling for solidarity inside a boat as images of the Statue Of Liberty flashed by. It was surreal, and also very sweaty. Once the band started playing, no one was too cool to dance, or afraid to shout the chorus to the beer-soaked anthem, “Freebird II” on the top of their lungs. People were even banging around during the 10-minute jam breakdown of “One Man, No City.”
Characterizing an album as a response to the political climate in 2018 has become a convenient means of refusing to engage with the seriousness of the central issues of our time. It’s easy to write off a record as a reaction to political unrest, almost as easy as it is to throw up your hands and say, “The government’s just messed up, man,” without offering any critical thought or insight as to why or how. People, critics in particular, are quick to call any piece of art political whenever it vaguely gestures to society being, like, less than great right now. Well, yeah, not many forward-thinking people would disagree with that sentiment. But we’ve got to scratch a little deeper beneath the surface of “We are living in a fascist dystopian hell on the brink of nuclear war and everything is terrible” to uncover some of our more deep-rooted social ills, and I think Parquet Courts do it better than anyone else right now.
Parquet Courts zero in on things that feel local and universal at the same time, elucidating the kinds of political disarray that may even hit a little too close to home. It’s conveniently cynical to dismiss the state of politics as hopeless for any change, but it’s difficult to think about the fact that you (yes, YOU) are susceptible to being used by larger institutions. Perhaps you are a wedge being exploited to fuel urban displacement, the widening class gap, gun violence, mass incarceration, and other systemic issues.
I thought about this while listening to “Violence”: “What is an up and coming neighborhood and where is it coming from?” Maybe you’re the gentrifier, despite your DSA membership and anti-displacement memes. And In “NYC Observation”: “How to glide past people sleeping on the sidewalk/ Dreaming about stepping over something to bite on.” Maybe the deli you like to get tallboys of Tecate at in Brooklyn before a DIY show is the same place that spurred a K2 epidemic two summers ago. Maybe the DIY scene you are involved in that so adamantly espouses inclusivity politics is actually extremely exclusive. When someone on the subway is panhandling, and your headphones are in listening to your favorite political podcast and you stare at your phone instead of giving up the crumpled dollar in your pocket, perhaps you are part of the problem.
The thought that maybe you are more complicit than you really think is anxiety-inducing, but to deeply reflect on this is at worst seriously damaging to your sense of self and at best, cathartic. These are some of the thornier issues that one might not feel good about addressing, and that we might even repress because they’re prickly and uncomfortable. These questions aren’t all explicitly outlined in Wide Awake!, but some of them are, and hearing these songs live did get me to think about all of these things and not feel entirely hopeless. Isn’t that sort of the point, really?