Updated: Jan 30
Favorite Track: “Walking at a Downtown Pace” Least Favorite Track: "Application/Apparatus"
In 2018, Parquet Courts released their most widely praised and loved album to date; the post-punk masterpiece that is Wide Awake!. Fans took to this album with a fervor, as it mixed passionate lyrical themes of political injustice with a knack for unrivaled groove and infectious songwriting. The album was lauded by critics and fans alike as not only the band’s best work to date, but one of the best punk-inspired albums of the 2010s. The record aged like a fine wine, the political themes falling even more into place during the election of 2020 and the ever-changing political climate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The record went on to gain a reputation in music nerd circles as one of the most prescient and important albums of the 2010s, and when bands that were releasing similar music in a comparable time frame to Wide Awake! such as IDLES made a return in the new decade, people began to wonder what would be next for Parquet Courts. How do you follow up a career and genre-defining record like Wide Awake!, and satisfy a fanbase that was hungry for another album that was just as relevant?
For Parquet Courts, the answer to this question comes in the form of their 2021 release Sympathy for Life. In the wake of its infamous predecessor, Sympathy for Life decides to do away with much of what made Wide Awake! so special, and take a more stripped back approach that is unlikely to satisfy casual fans. In lieu of searing guitars and pounding drums, this new direction sees Parquet Courts finding solace in the use of clean guitar tones, spaced-out synths, and a newfound softness that permeates the record. Guitarist Austin Brown has been quoted saying that the record took significant influence from dance music circles, and that “Wide Awake! was a record you could put on at a party. Sympathy for Life is influenced by the party itself.” This mission statement, which does apply to parts of the record, does become confusing when taking less danceable tracks like “Pulcinella” and “Just Shadows” into account. The record, despite having a clear mission statement, often fails to conform to it, thus coming out feeling like a mixed bag of stark highlights and career low points instead of a focused record.
The opening track “Walking at a Downtown Pace” is easily one of the most danceable tracks Parquet Courts has ever recorded, and is far and away the best example of what Sympathy for Life does well. The track has a remarkably driving drum beat, marching forward in a way that rivals some of the most driving moments of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, a record that is exemplary of everything that is remarkable about percussive elements in music. The vibrant bass, the roaring guitars, and the passionate and gripping lead vocals of the track take hold of the listener in a way that is easily on par with highlights from Wide Awake!. The writing on this song is a treat as well, with vocalist Andrew Savage revisiting feelings of lockdown with the lyrics “I’m making plans for the day all of this is through/Seeing my path and hearing the song I’ll sing/And food that I’ll taste and all the drinks that I’ll consume/Return the smile on an unmasked friend”. It is a wonderful musical encapsulation of the optimism we all feel as we reach the other end of the pandemic, and makes for the best song on the record by a mile.
“Black Widow Spider”, which acted as the second single for the record, is nearly just as driving. More upbeat drums and chugging guitars compliment the high energy of the first track, and the emotive lyrics about trying to move on from a past relationship are another wonderful moment where the writing chops of lead singer Andrew Savage are showcased. However, the record takes its first dip in quality directly after with the third track “Marathon of Anger”. This song sounds as if the band is desperately trying to recreate some of the spacier moments from Wide Awake!, and by comparison comes off completely weak. The synths on this song are sleepy, dull, and uninteresting, and the vocal melodies during the chorus are just uninteresting. For a nearly five minute song, it doesn’t do nearly enough to hold the interest of the listener. In a lot of ways, every critique that could be given to this song can be given to nearly every dull moment on the record. Whether it be the closing track “Pulcinella”, the painfully repetitive and underwritten “Just Shadows”, or the artificial and plastic sounding “Application/Apparatus”, every low point on the record feels as though it extensively overstays its welcome, doesn’t have enough to work with, and completely deviates from the original dance music mission statement.
For many people who enjoy seeing artists diversify their profile and explore new sounds, Sympathy for Life may be what they’re looking for. Successful in some spots and painfully bland in others, the record seeks to explore new ideas for the band and hone their skills. More than anything, it feels as though Sympathy for Life is a transitional period for the band. Every new sound and idea tested on the record isn’t inherently bad; it instead sounds like a group trying to regain their footing and not remain stagnant in the wake of Wide Awake!. When you make such a career defining record, it can be tough to decide where to go next. If you make more music in the same style as your success story, critics may argue that you’re a cop-out, a lack of talent. However, exploring new sounds and ideas can be daunting, and many bands unintentionally release their worst works during a transitional period that follows their best. For Parquet Courts, Sympathy for Life is neither a cop-out, nor a successful re-invention of their style: instead, it is a rocky but promising new beginning for a band that clearly has more to say in the future.