Review: Parquet Courts evolves their sound on ‘Sympathy for Life’
The ever-influential Parquet Courts allow themselves to be daring and inspired on their latest album.
Nov 3, 2021
On their latest album, “Sympathy for Life,” Parquet Courts once again brings a new set of influences to the table, rejuvenating their sound and crafting one of the most interesting records of the year. The Brooklyn-based band’s last album, 2018’s fantastic “Wide Awake!,” signaled a shift from their trademark sloppy, detuned punk style toward a tighter dance-influenced sound, fueled by production by Danger Mouse. On this record, they continue to lean into techno elements. With the angularity turned up, it sounds like they’ve been listening to a lot of Talking Heads with a side of jam bands to soften it all out.
While this might be their lowest-key record yet, the opening duo of “Walking at a Downtown Pace” and “Black Widow Spider” are closer to classic Parquet Courts, but set slightly misleading expectations for the rest of the album. Both tracks feature crunchy guitars and the tight, dance-y drums of their last album, but lyrically, things have definitely taken a turn for the abstract. Far from 2012’s fan-favorite 5-minute shredder “Stoned and Starving,” lead vocalist Andrew Savage delivers some of his most esoteric and meandering lyrics ever on “Black Widow Spider,” singing, “Eyes on my every move / Black widow spider / Climb, climb, climb into me / Black widow spider.” One of the album’s best tracks, the song sounds like a melted-down prog-ish The Stooges.
The band’s recent techno edge becomes clearer on songs like “Marathon of Anger” and “Plant Life,” where layered synths and sequencers replace guitars altogether. Light on lyrics, the production is strong enough to keep things from sounding naked. Since “Wide Awake!,” the group has mastered crafting a guitar-less set. “Marathon of Anger” and “Plant Life” have an irresistible beat to them and, at almost six minutes, “Plant Life” gives them time to get into a jam-band groove. It’s a bona fide techno track, foreign to the band’s former sound, and while it might disappoint some of their more punk-oriented fanbase, it’s exciting to see them dive so deep in this new direction — and even more so to have it pay off. The same goes for the title track, where slidey bass lines and syncopated drums evoke the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” with a Brooklyn punk edge, yet it all feels distinctly like Parquet Courts. The influence of producer Rodaidh McDonald, who is known for working with acts such as David Byrne and The xx, is definitely noticeable but is never overbearing.
The two strongest tracks on the album are likely the Italian closing duo of “Trullo” and “Pulcinella.” Savage has explained that their titles are influenced by a period of time he spent in Italy dropping LSD. “Trullo” is almost unrecognizable as a Parquet Courts track — it’s a funky, drawn-out computerized jam in which Savage rhythmically chants “Staring out of a glass eyeball” over a plucky banjo lead. Songs like these have me imagining a very different live experience from a typical Parquet Courts show. There’s a lot of room left for improvisation, and I think stripping down instrumentation works in their favor. More so than ever, the band’s choice here to make a song longer feels like a statement.
That being said, the almost 7-minute closer “Pulcinella” is among their strongest songs. Far from punk, dance or techno, it’s a delicious slow-burn rock ballad reminiscent of their 2014 album “Sunbathing Animal + Content Nausea” and its closer “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth.” Savage’s beautiful lyrics are on display in its added length. The final drawl of “Who am I when I can’t be unwound? / ‘Darling, it’s me’ as the mask comes off, ‘it always was’” is completely arresting. The 2-minute closing jam is triumphant and hypnotic. It’s a seamless wrap-up to a wide-ranging album, and I expect the song to be a mainstay at the end of their setlists.
Parquet Courts’ latest experiment is a hit. If LSD and trips to Italy are what it takes for Savage and co. to write songs like these, I prescribe more of both.
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