Review: Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life
National Music Reviews
Sympathy For Life
Parquet Courts = Dead Kennedys + Talking Heads + Primal Scream
Much of Parquet Courts’ newest album, Sympathy For Life, was written while co-Frontman Andrew Savage was in Italy—tripping on acid and lifting weights during the day and working on new songs at night. Meanwhile, co-Frontman Austin Brown was busy DJing in L.A., collecting dub and disco samples and attending dance parties. In the aftermath of the band’s acclaimed 2018 album, Wide Awake!, drummer Max Savage and bassist Sean Yeaton also took some time away from the band to work on ideas of their own.
Sympathy For Life sounds exactly like what it is—the individual schemes of multiple creatives tossed into a collective pot. However, instead of suffering from disarray, the finished product feels like a polished piece of controlled chaos. It’s angry yet joyful; dancey yet deeply perturbed with the world from which it was born. Eight albums in, the result of honoring individual ideas while functioning as a united collective is the perpetual reinvention of Parquet Courts. Sympathy For Life is exhibit A.
Brown says, “Wide Awake! was a record you could put on at a party, and Sympathy For Life is influenced by the party itself.” This reflection, while helpful for understanding the band’s thought process, totally undersells the new album’s most enjoyable gifts. Sympathy for Life is packed with groovy bops that could easily provide the soundtrack to all sorts of parties—dance, pajama, bat mitzvah, etc. With the exception of a few slightly cooled-off, downtempo moments, you’re going to want to dance when this album is on.
In fact, album opener and single, “Walking at a Downtown Pace,” picks up right where the protest-music energy of Wide Awake! left off. The hard-hitting drum fills and Dead Kennedys–esque power chords that Parquet Courts leaned on throughout Wide Awake! return here to kick off the proceedings. While this continuity serves as a pleasing bridge between albums, Sympathy For Life soon establishes itself as entirely distinct. Yes, the lyrics still possess the band’s terminal case of capitalism blues and Yeaton’s bass lines still kick ass, but there are plenty of fresh qualities on display too.
“Marathon of Anger” begins with a glitchy melody of bleeps and bloops that feel like they were sampled from a voice mailbox and a submarine’s radar. These sounds, which are also found in varying forms on other tracks, create a visceral aura of digital apparatus and automated assembly lines. Doubled vocals that repeat, “It’s time anyone got to work / It’s time everyone got to work” also add to the industrial, mechanized flavor of the track and sharply recall Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.”
Parquet Courts have an exceptional ability to deliver bleak observations in the form of catchy grooves that make you want to both nod your head in agreement and bob your head in delight. On Sympathy For Life, algorithmic curation and technology-induced discomfort are under the lyrical microscope. “Application/Apparatus” examines the experience of summoning an Uber or Lyft from a smartphone and the strange human interactions that are forged in the process. “Satisfaction rating advertised with pride / Rebel soldiers, freedom fighters some would say / Charging cable offered as a sign of peace.” As the rideshare experience progresses in the lyrics, an ever-building cadence of ominous bass notes and digitized chimes oscillate like firing pistons.
On “Just Shadows,” Andrew Savage offers a coherent stance on convenience-first culture and questions how the human experience is impacted in the age of automated curation. “Delivery, mouth-watering / Optimized for pleasure it seems / I fucks with it not.” Max Savage orchestrates a complex waltzy rhythm as his syncopated snare hits pay homage to Stewart Copeland. Sympathy For Life is concerned with how “freedom” and “control” are affected and potentially reduced by our access to technology that can make algorithmic decisions on our behalf. As Andrew Savage sings in the track’s closing moments, “Life’s not as modern as it seems / Can’t pick who you love.”
“Pulcinella,” a product of Andrew Savage’s trippy lifting, closes out the tracklist with sprawling, country-rock twang and lyrics delivered like spoken-word poetry. Like a declarative manifesto of sorts, the opening verse of “Pulcinella” serves as the ideological summation of the rest of the record: “I want things so much more than I want to sometimes / And it feels like my brain is the binary code’s problem now,” sings Savage.
Several of the finished tracks began as 40-plus-minute recordings of free-ranging jam sessions. Organic improvisation facilitated the convergence of the individual members’ ideas. Impressively, the finished album successfully finds space for each of them without feeling cluttered. As usual, Parquet Courts accomplish a lot at once. Their new album is cerebral, noisy, and articulate, but none of these characteristics get in the way of its true identity: Sympathy For Life is the life of the party. –Austin Beck-Doss
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