If you thought you knew what you were expecting coming into a Parquet Courts album, Sympathy for Life does everything it can to subvert those expectations. Ties can be made back to their previous funk-heavy album Wide Awake! or even the experimental half-strength LP Content Nausea, but Sympathy for Life is distinctly Parquet Courts biggest leap forward yet, with ambient, space, dub, repetition, and exploration being the building blocks from which the band have constructed their new LP.
“Wide Awake! was a record you could put on at a party,” says Parquet Courts co-frontman Austin Brown. “Sympathy For Life is influenced by the party itself. Historically, some amazing rock records have been made from mingling in dance music culture – from Talking Heads to Screamadelica. Our goal was to bring that into our own music.”
Thematically, the album plays exactly like a night out, from the exuberant anticipation of ‘Walking at a Downtown Pace’ to attempting to forget your problems in ‘Black Widow Spider’ to the full embrace of ‘Marathon of Anger’ that finds you trying to what to actually be angry about. From there, Sympathy for Life completely drops any attempts to be a rock or punk record, letting Parquet Courts work out their dub, new wave, and experimental electronica tendencies.
Although rock takes a back seat, the band still finds room for one of their most essential tenets: noise. Whereas in the past the band might have tumbled into a feedback-laden freakout, like they did on Light Up Gold’s standout track ‘Stoned and Starving’, now the noise comes in composed synths, electronic buzz, and reverb-infused loops. Sympathy for Life is the most hypnotising album of Parquet Courts’ career, with the seemingly endless 6/8 retreads of ‘Just Shadows’ and the nearly six-minute ambient whir of ‘Plant Life’ showing a far less aggressive side of the band.
A large reason for their move away from the sounds of the past came from their choice of producers, Rodaidh McDonald and John Parish. “Rodaidh’s ear for the groove was invaluable,” adds Andrew Savage. “He’s not from a rock background, so his touchstones and intuition are a world away from ours. That’s why we wanted to work with him. He taught us to hear sounds differently.”
Those new sounds are sometimes obvious, like the drum machines and laser beam synths of ‘Application Apparatus’, and sometimes more subtle, like the familiar indie-rock drive of ‘Homo Sapien’ that nevertheless feels just a bit different from their usual propulsive punk. The band’s desire to find their “CAN, Canned Heat, and This Heat” blend is most explicit on the album’s title track where drummer Max Savage gives us his best ‘Vitamin C’ approximation. Bassist Sean Yeaton is less front and centre than he was on Wide Awake!, but his bass lines blend into the song’s arrangement in a far more satisfying way this time around, indicative of his desire to not “show off” as much on Sympathy for Life.
It doesn’t always hold together: the transition between ‘Application Apparatus’ and ‘Homo Sapien’ is especially harsh, and even if it was explicitly meant to be so, it doesn’t make it any easier. Parquet Courts were never afraid of making you feel uncomfortable, but now that they’ve gone so far out of their traditional style, there will be a fair amount of Sympathy for Life that longtime fans are bound to disagree with.
But even if this kicks off the “Remember when Parquet Courts were a rock band” discussions, it’s impossible to write off the ambitious leap forward that Sympathy for Life represents. The album finds Parquet Courts challenging their listeners and themselves to find something new and exciting. What they’ve stumbled upon is a mesmerising downward spiral, one that can excite as much as it drains you. It’s a party of experimentation and confusion, as impressionistic as the famously erudite band have ever been. At the same time, it’s a wonderful album to turn off your brain and let the party take you away.
As the funky clavinet comes in on ‘Zoom Out’, you finally feel like you’re in on the joke. Parquet Courts aren’t a punk band anymore, but maybe they never were in the first place. A punk band would never let themselves sound this free, this wide-open, or this disoriented. Album closer ‘Pulcinella’ sprawls with the kind of post-party melancholy that leaves you longing to jump back into the ecstasy. Unlike in real life, you don’t have to wait to experience that same rush again: just hit replay and you’re ready to go on a trip all over again.
This is where the artier side of Parquet Courts fully takes over. If you’re only interested in the aggressive thump of the band’s past, thanks for coming along for the ride because there’s the door. The punk rock was always in the band’s attitude and approach, not the band’s sound. If nothing else, Sympathy for Life proves that Parquet Courts are still the most punk rock-thinking band of the modern-day. And what’s more punk rock than going against everything you’ve built up to by this point? Expectations are for suckers: time to drop acid, lift some weights, and head to the party.