Album Review: Parquet Courts - 'Sympathy for Life'

New York punk rockers Parquet Courts have gained a somewhat legendary status amongst music fans in recent years. Owen White breaks down the band's latest offering Sympathy for Life, one of the most anticipated albums of 2021.

Parquet Courts return after their 2018 masterpiece Wide Awake! for an excellent follow-up record that’s groovier, more contemplative and just a touch bloated. After gracing the independent music scene with their stunning debut Light Up Gold in 2013 the group managed to ride out the remainder of the decade as punk’s most promising new hope, bar maybe Iceage. For the duration of this period they dropped solid record after solid record culminating in the jubilous glory of Wide Awake!. In spite of my aforementioned love for their debut, I and I think a great many other listeners had to acknowledge the record as a new zenith for the band.

Wide Awake! is the kind of record that sees all the pieces fall perfectly into place, the kind you can tell on first listen a group has always been destined to make and just hadn’t found the right vocabulary with which to do so yet. It saw the groups heady but always deeply personal political musings, punchy rhythm sections and well-honed songcraft perfectly distilled and distributed between 13 tight punk ragers, and emotive detours featuring the most expressive and detailed production of their career (courtesy of Danger Mouse of all people). Wide Awake saw the group achieve a new degree of acclaim and cultural relevance, which of course then begs the question: have they successfully capitalised on that hype on Sympathy for Life?

Well, explosive opener Walking At A Downtown Pace would certainly have you believe so. It’s as triumphant and rollicking as any great Parquet Courts barnburner has ever been, drawing from their rich history of fiery extended jams like Stoned and Total Football. Populated with fuzzed out ear-candy guitar licks with an almost classic rock flavour, chunky grooves led by their bassline perhaps most deserving of the label “funk” so far and one of Savage’s most thrilling vocal performances to date, it’s yet another stunning addition to the canon. Two elements of this track did immediately spring out at me as setting it apart from those excellent prior jams though: the vocals and the scope.

"This new variety in delivery really allows some of the albums more delicate moments and emotions to connect on a more human level."

Andrew Savage probably has the most singularly recognizable deliveries in modern rock music and that hasn’t changed here, but what’s truly striking here is his newfound delicacy and even, gasp, tunefulness. While there was always a visceral thrill in the weirdly effective contrast of listening to him fire and brimstone his way through a more gentle track like Tenderness, this new variety in delivery really allows some of the albums more delicate moments and emotions to connect on a more human level. No longer is Savage simply raging against the machine, he’s now also building human connections as an act of defiance.

The change in scope here is perhaps even more interesting. Parquet Courts have always ostensibly been a punk band in the truest sense; favouring brevity and ferocity in their pursuit of musical catharsis. While they’re no strangers to including epics pushing the 6-7 minute mark on their records, these moments have hitherto been outliers in their respective track lists (with the exception of 2014’s punishingly aimless Sunbathing Animals). Here even the shorter tracks feel sprawling with not even one managing to skirt the 2:30 mark.

"...the newfound possibilities of this more jam-oriented method are beautifully explored on truly strange cuts like the closing Pulcinella."

The songs here are not so much played as they are built with the band riding driving krautrock-ian grooves off into the sunset, packing out tracks like the wonderfully hazy neon daydream Plant Life with thrilling embellishments and some truly outlandish sonic ideas. The track populates its welcoming funk groove with a slathering of new age synth wizardry, disorienting vocal samples and distant bells to otherworldly effect. Elsewhere the newfound possibilities of this more jam-oriented method are beautifully explored on truly strange cuts like the closing Pulcinella. It’s difficult to imagine a cut as odd and as oddly moving appearing on any previous Parquet Courts record, with its jaunty barroom sway and haunting lyrical portrait of alienation from the self in the modern age. By the time it reaches its haunting booze-soaked coda, led by an ingeniously simple guitar lead, it’s already comfortably positioned itself as one of their finest songs.

This radical change in approach doesn’t come without its growing pains, however. The aimless Application Apparatus recalls Sunbathing Animals in all the worst ways, lingering on a good minute after the thrill has gone. It’s tragic to watch it squander its Velvet Underground via stoner rock aesthetic on dull linear minimalism and a lyrical concept that basically amounts to ‘hey man we’re all like, totally cogs in a machine!’. Elsewhere the baffling choice for 2nd single Black Widow Spider pokes the holes in the band’s attempt to transfer their prior lyrical and melodic approach to their new sound. The songs overly verbose hook trips over itself, and drab verses manage to simultaneously sound messy and like a bit of a dirge.

Overall Sympathy for Life is a great Parquet Courts record. Like any good follow-up to a near-perfect album, it doesn’t attempt to match or exceed its predecessor in concept or execution and instead takes an entirely novel approach, producing largely excellent results. While it suffers from some weak spots and shows room to grow into this new style, it succeeds in showing that even a decade into their career you can still teach an old punk new tricks. Sympathy for Life presents an exciting future and a band willing to completely overhaul their song writing approach even after what might be the most successful album of their career. While I can’t see it breaking anyone’s number 1 spot for Parquet Courts albums or album of the year, it’s a worthy addition to their discography and an enjoyable listen in it’s own right.

Written by: Owen White

Edited by: Elliot Fox

In article images courtesy of Parquet Courts via Video courtesy of Parquet Courts via YouTube.