Sympathy for Life represents a new tangent for Parquet Courts, but one that could stand to be attended to more.
Remarkably dynamic and continually inventive, Parquet Courts has continued to thrive where most of their genre contemporaries have flailed and faded. While cultural interests shift further and further away from the sounds and stylings of the drum/guitar/bass rock quartet, this band (still consisting of Andrew Savage, Austin Brown, Sean Yeaton and Max Savage — the day one lineup) has leaned in, working and refining the spry, reduxed proto-punk of breakthrough album Light Up Gold to great success over the course of their now decade-plus career.
Most recently, Parquet Courts veered somewhere close to explicit pop appeal with the Danger Mouse-produced Wide Awake, an experiment of sorts born from a desire to challenge the band’s more serrated musical tendencies. The results were indeed crisper and bigger, Savage’s twangy, shouted delivery blown up to anthemic proportions previously touched on by the vocalist and his cohorts (who often pick up additional vocal responsibilities), but never so heartily committed to. But as seems to be the Parquet Courts way, this approach (and Danger Mouse) has been reconsidered for their new project Sympathy for Life, which turns away from compact, broad production in favor of sparer, electronic compositions.
Though, such a description of the music on Sympathy for Life could oversell it as a radical departure for Parquet Courts whereas, similar to Wide Awake or previous switch-up record Content Nausea, the songs here are still well within proximity of the quintessential works, just accentuating particular elements. In fact, opening tracks “Walking at a Downtown Pace” and “Black Widow Spider” feel like natural progressions of the band’s general proclivities, positioning Savage front and center for a pair of sped-up ballads that marry the band’s usual vigorous tempo with a more sing-songy vocal approach to considerable effect. A strong start unfortunately belies a more confused progression, following these openers with “Marathon of Anger” and “Just Shadows”; the latter song scanning as a downbeat leftover from some session years prior, while the former suggests an album that never quite arrives.
As discussed in much of the pre-release promotion, Sympathy for Life embraces electronic production and aims to harness the spirit of the club and rave culture the band has recently grown keen on. Not such an unreasonable pivot for Parquet Courts certainly, but the results are strangely muted, “Marathon of Anger” standing out as the most energetic take on the concept, putting Savage’s rapid-fire spoken word depiction of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests over frenetic, clashing beats. Other interpretations like “Application/Apparatus” feel less engaged, apparently culled from extensive improv sessions overseen by Rodaidh McDonald and PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish; the album’s core is comprised of moody, drifting compositions built atop precise rhythmic beeps that don’t ever quite add up to the club-ready beats Parquet Courts claimed to be angling for. An interesting change of pace for the band, but one that only feels partially committed to, Sympathy for Life represents a new tangent that could stand to be attended to more.
Published as part of Album Roundup — October 2021 | Part 4.