Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Parquet Courts Sympathy For Life

Rough Trade
2021
Rough Trade
2021

From the moment they had their breakthrough in the early ’10s, Parquet Courts had a winning formula. Their musical DNA drew from punk, ’90s indie, and a bit of classic rock — punchy and wiry and infectious all at once while carrying lyrics that could be cerebral but also wry and conversational. That formula fueled several albums through the decade as Parquet Courts established themselves as one of the best indie bands of their time. Then, in 2018, they started to mix it up: Making the surprising decision to team with Danger Mouse as producer, Parquet Courts released Wide Awake!, an album that began to expand their sound with more of a more groove-oriented focus and a broader palette of textures. Now that plays like a practice run. Parquet Courts are back with their seventh album, Sympathy For Life, and it’s the biggest departure of their career.

Knowing they were closing in on 10 years of being a band, Parquet Courts had a mind to change things up a bit. They began looking to different places for inspiration. Before the pandemic, they all started going out to dance parties more frequently, and they considered what it would be like to incorporate dance structures and aesthetics into their pre-established rock sound. While A. Savage was shooting for a mixture of Can, Canned Heat, and This Heat, the band also cites reference points like Talking Heads, Screamadelica, and Pink Floyd. Incredibly and somewhat hilariously, some of the music also originated when A. Savage was in Italy, taking LSD and lifting weights before writing in the evening.

Psychedelia has popped up here and there across Parquet Courts’ catalog, but Sympathy For Life was always destined to be more of a head trip than anything they’d done before. “The biggest asset we have as artists is the band,” Austin Brown said in an album bio. “After 10 years together, our greatest instrument is each other.” He’s not wrong; this band always sounds amazing together. And that’s what they leaned on for the composition of Sympathy For Life: jamming in a room, culling down 40- or 50-minute improvisations to four- or five-minute tracks, running their instruments through a Korg MS-20 synth. Brown “played” everyone else’s instruments by adding effects in a mixer, while Max Savage switched to electronic drums part of the time. Along the way, they linked up with Rodaidh McDonald — known for production work with electronic-oriented artists like the xx and Hot Chip — to help them break open and mutate their sound.

Sympathy For Life is not without more traditional Parquet Courts songs — “Black Widow Spider,” “Just Shadows,” and “Homo Sapien” are all rockers that could’ve existed on most of the band’s preceding albums. But beyond that? This album is a ride. It opens with an emphatic mission statement, the clattering drums of “Walking At A Downtown Pace” picking up where “Wide Awake!” left off. Even there, it’s still a hybrid — the welcome return of A. Savage’s melodic sensibility, that inevitable Parquet Courts push and pull, a semi-recognizable composition from the band now turned into more of a party. From there, though, Sympathy For Life goes pretty far out.

A good portion of the album finds Parquet Courts not just dressing up their well-honed songwriting with synths and beats, but overhauling themselves altogether. This is by far the vibiest, spaciest music of their career. “Plant Life” imagines, fittingly, life as a houseplant in a bleary dub-esque arrangement; “Trullo” picks up that same style later in the album. “Sympathy For Life” and “Zoom Out” are coiled, synthetic funk; Sean Yeaton’s bass is a crucial MVP on many of these songs. Even “Marathon Of Anger,” one of the album’s more urgent moments thematically, exists in a watery, zonked out space. Sometimes the psychedelic strains get turned into something more intense too — like how the sputtering sound effects and distortion dancing around the motorik pulse of “Application/Apparatus” eventually cohere into a rushing, blown out final act.

Theoretically, this could be be a divisive pivot. Parquet Courts are a band known for sharp, barked hooks and visceral riffs, with the occasional winsome classic rock moment thrown in. Sympathy For Life may have been painstakingly edited down from letting-it-all-hang-out jams, but it’s still often oblique and bleary relative to what we expect from this band. Fortunately, Parquet Courts don’t miss. Sympathy For Life still has go-for-the-throat moments, but it’s also just a joy to zone out to — all the strange sounds and arrangements as impeccably crafted as all the more direct music of Parquet Courts’ past.

Thematically, Sympathy For Life has more through lines with the band’s other albums. There are some new directions, like the title track’s lose-yourself-to-the-night mantras: “Be here now — you are/ Lose all — distraction from/ Hands on a shoulder for/ React reaction.” But elsewhere, A. Savage and Brown continue to mull over mechanisms of society and contemporary life, with Savage in particular continuing to grapple with how to navigate existence under late capitalism. “Application/Apparatus” is what it sounds like, meditating on smartphones and apps — “Application soothing like a mother’s voice/ Speaks instructions to me in my native tongue” — but underlining the dislocating, alien nature of it all by Savage droning his way through the lyrics as the song festers around him.

As ever, he can blend something laugh-out-loud funny — kicking off “Homo Sapien” by roaring, “What a time to be alive/ A TV set in the fridge!” — before continuing through more nuanced, dire circumstances: “A voice that recites the news and/ Leaves out the gloomy bits/ A god for the modern soul/ With even paternal speech/ Hardwired to your desire/ The meaning of luxury.” Mostly conceived before the pandemic, Sympathy For Life has a few moments that hit different now, like a reference to an unmasked friend in “Walking At A Downtown Pace.” But it also has one blatantly topical moment in “Marathon Of Anger,” which reacts to the atmosphere in New York in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year.

While that is a specific moment in New York and in our country’s history at large, it gets at something else about Sympathy For Life. Ever since a certain line about walking through Ridgewood, Queens way back when, Parquet Courts were heralded as a great entry in the lineage of New York rock bands. And they were that. But there are ways in which Sympathy For Life feels, to me at least, more New York than they’ve ever been before. “Walking At A Downtown Pace” comes from a Brooklyn man yelling at A. Savage for walking a bit too quickly, but it’s also about capturing the sense of possibility at the beginning of a night out in the city — all the people and places waking up, the tempo building. Musically, it races and clangs; it sounds like moving through the city quickly, and the same goes for something as insistent as “Application/Apparatus.”

But, really, the album’s adventurousness is what makes it feel like something distinctly born of New York. That is where they were hitting clubs before the pandemic, dreaming up this new sound — but it also harkens back to the fertile era of old downtown New York, the free mingling of disco and early rap and punk and new wave. (Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s the scene the Clash were chasing when they made Sandinista!, and there are moments on Sympathy For Life reminiscent of that album.) That’s not the exact collision of sounds Parquet Courts are going for here, but the melting pot of Sympathy For Life very much sounds like the best versions of New York that can still be found out there.

The album was originally slated for release last year, but was held back due to the pandemic. Something about its origins make it hit all the harder now on the other side: Even shot through with darkness and even in its tendency to venture into murkier sonic territory, Sympathy For Life brims with a sort of exploratory energy, the electricity of the city, a colorful burst that lands a very specific way if you were one of those people who saw just how quiet New York temporarily became last year. “Treasure the crowds that once made me so annoyed,” Savage sings. “Sometimes I wonder how long until I’m a face in one?” It’s another line that seems to mean something entirely different than its original intent, the band breaking back out into the world.

It always feels weird to say about a band as consistently acclaimed as Parquet Courts, but for a moment there I was on the brink of taking this group for granted. It’s the Spoon Conundrum: Here is a band so freakishly sharp and consistent and reliable that, in lacking a new story, people eventually start to underrate. For over a decade now, Parquet Courts have been operating at a very high level. They’ve already become an indie rock institution. And now, with Sympathy For Life, they have another strong entry in a nearly bulletproof catalog. But more importantly, they are showing they can transform without losing their incisiveness. Parquet Courts are evolving, and the sound is as exhilarating as ever.

Sympathy For Life is out 10/22 on Rough Trade. You can hear the album early tonight, via Feel Free, a “visualization” of Sympathy For Life. Tickets are available here.

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