Sunday, October 31, 2021

‘Sympathy For Life’ Continues A Seven-Album Winning Streak for Parquet Courts

The spirit of ‘Sympathy For Life’, the latest release from Parquet Courts, could best be described as the feeling of skipping your morning shower, drinking two black cold brew coffees on an empty stomach, and scampering through a busy street to get somewhere you’re already running late to.

The album is anxious, industrial, and winding. And somehow, from the post-punk magic that only Parquet Courts could muster, it works.

Based in New York City but originating from Texas, ‘Sympathy for Life’ is the seventh studio album for the group, their latest release since their critically acclaimed ‘Wide Awake!’ in 2018.

The group chose a process-based approach to writing and recording, taking up residence in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York to record long jam sessions that would be cut down and revised into 11 tracks. Though the band has cited ‘Screamadelica’ by Primal Scream as the primary inspiration for the album, an ambitious attempt to blend their art punk and garage-rock stylings with 80s house and disco, the Catskill’s influence also alludes to some of the best bands to come out of Bard College: the slacker-sounding but surprisingly complex Steely Dan and the more contemporary electronic-math-rock Palm both become reference points for the album.

The opening track, ‘Walking at a Downtown Pace’, introduces the expertly crafted production of the album. While the instrumental stylings of the band are loose and inspired by the energy and ethos of classic punk and garage-rock, the production of the album is tight, bright, and clean. Owing to expert producers Rodaidh McDonald (David Byrne, HMLTD, Gil-Scott Heron, King Krule) and John Parish (Liz Phair, The Eels), ‘Sympathy For Life’ oftentimes sounds more like a live concert than a studio album. 

The seventh track, ‘Homo Sapien’ is the Platonic form of a Parquet Courts song with its gang vocals, shrieking guitar, and persistent kick drum. In an interview with DIY Mag, frontman Andrew Savage says that the process of making the album “all started one day when I went to the gym on acid”. This sort of spiralling, athletic, multi-directional energy binds the album together even as the band pushes their sound beyond their expected niche.

Parquet Courts wanted to evolve their sound, and no place is that better done than in fifth track ‘Plant Life’. Fittingly sunny, the song begins with a system of electronic beeps. ‘Plant Life’, and the album as a whole, evokes a timelessness that places it somewhere between a 1970s night out at The Loft in Greenwich Village and a basement show in a university town, finding the space between Donna Summer and Jeff Rosenstock. ‘Plant Life’ even seems to evoke some of the later works of Phillip Glass, but to reduce the album to a series of references diminishes how fresh and innovative it feels.

While Parquet Courts made their name in the post-punk scene and garage rock revival often tied to musical elitism and the promotion of a chauvinistic masculinity associated with the alternative scene, the band has always vocally embraced inclusivity and the active critique of capitalist systems. The retrofuturist approach to the album draws from what Savage describes in the same DIY Mag interview as “advertisements, text, lights. We have this omnipresence of technology, and we’re always in it. It’s a very hard thing to escape”.

The thesis of ‘Sympathy For Life’ is delivered in its ninth track, ‘Zoom Out’. Somewhere between disco and punk, sleekly produced with a relaxed yet calculated percussive underscore and a chorus that repeats “When you zoom out, together is now / Earth's shut down and space is so passé”, ‘Zoom Out’ becomes an anthem for inclusivity, musical and otherwise.

Parquet Courts have become a fixture of their niche, but with ‘Sympathy for Life’ they may have transcended the niche altogether. Combining a diverse bevvy of influences to create something that feels futuristic rather than nostalgic, this album is sparkling, complex, and above all else, empathetic.

Charlie Alexandra


Image: ‘Sympathy For Life’, Official Album Cover

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