Despite their mainstream breakthrough three years ago, and the more widespread critical acclaim that came with it, Parquet Courts remain vocal critics of their industry. Their faces aren’t on Amazon Prime boxes and they aren’t in TikTok advertisements. They sell out tours, but they haven’t sold out, and while other acts have spent lockdown making more introspective records, Parquet Courts emerge from their quarantine with Sympathy for Life—still keen on unleashing their trademark woozy, brash and fearless desecrations of star quarterback legacies and capitalist moguls.
For every moment of self-interrogation and lament, though, there’s an equally vulnerable turn towards critiquing bigger picture issues, like consumerism’s mass commodities and citywide gentrification. Recorded in March 2020, mixed and mastered last fall, and shelved because of COVID-19 and the group’s inability to tour, Sympathy for Life still skyrockets as a natural follow-up to the left turn of its tonally ambitious and technically masterful predecessor—but on this project, the band ramp up their polished sound with an assembly of synth-rock and soft palettes of speculative and, sometimes, refreshingly vulnerable lyricism.
Parquet Courts still evoke what is sometimes forgotten: Punk rock does not carry a specific shape that can be pointed to, because it’s more of an ethos than a footprint. The group’s decade-long trajectory has taken the form of a fluid movement, rather than one set sound. They’re chameleonic and vast, going from the cult echelons of garage rock on breakout Sunbathing Animal in 2014 to bonafide stardom with their last record, Wide Awake!, in 2018—on which the band took direct aim at police brutality, gentrification and more, pairing those subjects with burnout lyrics and dance-floor intentions.
Co-frontman Austin Brown describes it best: “Wide Awake! was a record you could put on at a party. Sympathy for Life is influenced by the party itself.” The latter’s jabs are unintentionally tailored to pandemic gripes and their residual effects—packaged as a record that’s the kind of groove you’ve got to sit down and appreciate. It’s the group’s Talking Heads fever dream: a mirage of thought-provoking, unforced, anti-fascist rock and roll written during acid trips and exercise routines, all slapped atop addictive instrumentals.
Take “Just Shadows,” for example, where co-frontman A. Savage’s imagery transports us back to early June 2020, commenting on the clusterfuck of the United States at large, where revolutions against climate change, systematic violence within the police state, Facebook ad conspiracy theories and consumerism designed to out-muscle small businesses were all top of mind. “Amazon fire, 20% off / Global cost, vast species death / Suggested for you,” Savage sings on the track, in a dreamy tenor that’s a sharp change of pace from his usual in-your-face, rugged strains. Given the context that the record was written and recorded before summer 2020, the lyrics don’t come across as forced commentary, instead serving as reminders of how those moments were not anomalies, but rather continued traditions of inequity and apathy.
Parquet Courts’ grievances ditch vague liberal lyricism in favor of specific injunctions of philosophy behind closed doors and fights put in motion outside. Even back-half track “Homo Sapien” weighs in on the action. It’s the kind of joint you’d get if Frank O’Hara was a late millennial on ketamine, not to mention it’s classic A. Savage: rushed and thrashing, full of verses cooked on digging at the primal, contemporary nothingness of useless luxuries and the eroticism of not feeling trapped inside a flesh prison. “What a time to be alive / A TV set in the fridge,” Savage opens the track, before juxtaposing the human desires to both kill and fuck.
And once again, Brown is responsible for the coolest entry on a Parquet Courts record—this time with the synth-driven, disco sexiness of “Plant Life,” a track that was originally a 40-minute improvisational jam, edited down to 10 minutes and then a measly five-and-change. Brown’s writing on it is both foxy and attentive, and the opening verse, “Hangin on a limb warm from the wind / Grown up a plastic commodity / Domestic rain will sanitize the scene / Natural inclination / Wicked, it sure stacks up pretty quick / The soil’s got a fever,” is set to be an all-timer in the group’s discography.
Yet it’s the closing track that cements Sympathy for Life as the group’s boldest effort. A near-seven-minute odyssey of organic guitar work, and an absolutely stellar vocal performance from Savage, “Pulcinella” is a love song at its core—an idea that’s not well-traversed territory for the group. But Savage inserts one-liners that absolutely sing, like “I got so wrecked up waiting for you,” “It feels like my brain is the binary code’s problem now” and “You’re no more a stranger than the smile that shines out from the moon.”
Hardcore Parquet Courts followers might find this record divisive in its melodramatic scores and patient vocal performances. Let’s be fair: Savage himself cut his teeth years ago on singing faster than an ambulance rushes. But on Sympathy for Life, he and the group have no interest in getting to the finish line first, nor are they interested in who’s there to greet them. It’s funny, but Parquet Courts have always been this trenchant—and this time, they’re hellbent on making sure those who’ve stuck around are ready to listen.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.