Album Review: Parquet Courts // Sympathy For Life

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Parquet Courts - Sympathy For Life cover artwork

Lots of rock bands often try and attempt a ‘dance’ record, but not many succeed. The key, it seems, is to partner with a producer from that sphere, who knows the history of the rave, cutting down endless jams into an LP which allow you to sample an eclectic mix of grooves without outstaying its welcome. For Primal Scream’s Screamadelica’s success, the influence of the late Andrew Weatherall was foundational for its success in slicing and moulding together hard rock, acid house and soul. Sympathy For Life, the follow-up record to 2018’s smash hit Wide Awake! by New Yorkers Parquet Courts, found its psychedelic club essence through Rodaidh McDonald, the producer behind the success of The xx’s three records, David Byrne’s American Utopia, and Hot Chip’s A Bath Full of Ecstasy. And, undoubtedly, it works.

The record starts off with ‘Walking at a Downtown Pace’, almost a segue from the rocky masterpiece of Wide Awake! Here, jangling drums, continuously riffing guitars and an absence of the synths which soon dominate the record create a sense of excitement; it’s a perfect encapsulation of the feeling you receive when you’re strutting down the street, not yet at the club but ready to arrive and dive into a night of unbridled pleasure. The lyrics, as co-frontman Andrew Savage explains, refer to his speedy walking, the title taken from abuse he faced for his pace down the Brooklyn street. “There’s a potency in the air”, he continues. “The space between you and other human beings is filled with something. You can feel it, fizzing”. This starts the commentary on space between human beings which prevails throughout the lyrics of the record.

The six-minute long ‘Plant Life’, for example, is “literally about being a house plant”, explains co-frontman Austin Brown. Edited for the lead single release to ten minutes from a 40-minute jam, and then near-halved for the record release, it’s a relentless track filled with concurrent vocals, spoken word clips, drum machine cuts and diced guitar riffs. You can sense how the house plant the band enlivens is “contained in an artificial environment” with a desire to “branch out” – it’s simultaneously airy but claustrophobic.

Meanwhile, the zinging ‘Application Apparatus’, my personal highlight of the record, is inspired by the distance created by being at the back of Ubers and hearing sat navs speak in different languages – a sense of alienation from the driver in front. Here, the synths properly come to the fore, with kraut-rock distortion mixed with electronic flashes reminiscent of The Chemical Brothers; over this desolate electronic landscape, a salient dissection of the abilities of sat-navs flows: “5G signal, guides my hands to shift the gears/Grim reminder, war cannot be truly fled” – as if it desires, the electronic device could simply direct us there. But the calmness breaks down at the end of the track; Austin and Savage, backed by typical creaking guitars, demean these applications as simply the tools of “young people enjoying urban habitation”.

The album itself slows down at the end from its inherent monumental chaos during the final track ‘Pulcinella’. Savage imagines himself enraptured by the self-centred, pretending, and hedonistic eponymous masked Commedia dell’Arte stock character. Thus, he explains in a detailed comparison of two Wizard of Oz characters – the Tin Man and the Scarecrow – that he’d rather be able to feel emotion by having a heart rather than to have an emotionless brain (“I’d rather be stuffed with straw than made of tin”); he ruminates on the past personalities this girl, ‘Pulcinella’, assumed (“I drag a chain of faces and names”)’ nonetheless, at the end of the sombre track, as the mask comes off, he’s told “Darling, it’s me…it always was” – and so the romance can be rekindled, whether positive or not.

There’s more, though, than just commentary on everyday life situations; Parquet Courts still find room for social commentary. The digital disco-punk anthem ‘Marathon of Anger’ was inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, tells over a mix of rhythmic guitars, echoey bass lines and Korg synths how “it’s time everyone got to work” since “it’s all community” – there’s a possibility to shape the reality of living in the city, as “we’ve got the power” and “shot the truth up like a cure”. ‘Black Widow Spider’ returns to the familiar terrain of capitalist critique and bluesy rock, though with the electronic blasts making cameos throughout the track. Savage is interested in “how much control a person has over their own life”, and here he imagines contemporary existence as being unable to escape the marketplace. Happiness is dependent on money (“I’m trying to save the money for something I want…Will I get enough in time?”), and this necessity to earn for his mind’s sake accompanies his every move, transposed into the deadly figure of a black widow spider, “always my company”.

You can tell that this is a record founded on improvisations and dance grooves, and this makes it insanely fun to experience the chemistry bouncing of the quartet and their producers. Its success is found via transporting you throughout the entire experience of a party: the initial strutting down to the club ‘Walking at a Downtown Pace’, the inner chaos of the night in ‘Application/Apparatus’, and the quiet regrets at the end in ‘Pulcinella’. But, it also manages to discuss relationships between people and make some biting critiques at modern existence – as well as capturing so much more into the record’s sphere, from sat-navs to Italian folk figures. On their eighth studio album in ten years, Parquet Courts reveal themselves as no less thought provoking – and it might even be better than Wide Awake!

Words by Matthew Prudham


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