Essential New Music: Parquet Courts’ “Sympathy For Life”

Stepping forward while looking back, Parquet Courts push musical boundaries while still retaining a sense of identity on Sympathy For Life. “Plant Life,” the lead single from the album, is a layered and rhythmic celebration that serves as a stark contrast to the band’s 2011 debut American Specialties but picks up where much of 2018’s Wide Awake! left off. Fitting, given Parquet Courts have expressed interest in doing something new while still remaining true to their past.

Like the Clash did with Sandinista!, Parquet Courts—with the help of producers Rodaidh McDonald (David Byrne, xx, Savages) and John Parish (PJ Harvey, Arno, Aldous Harding)—harness the power of the band’s impenetrable rhythm section and use it to take their sound to new places. At times, it’s almost as if Parquet Courts wrote Sympathy For Life with a festival audience in mind. It’s easy to smell the smoke, sunscreen and sweat on the 10-minute-plus “Plant Life.”

Parquet Courts also succeed in challenging themselves as songwriters. While the soundscapes on Sympathy For Life are more vast than anything the band has ever done—like the psychedelic version of Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up The Country” that is “Black Widow Spider”—what remains constant is the lyrical juxtaposition that Parquet Courts have come to perfect over the course of their discography. 

The double entendre of co-frontman Austin Brown’s lyrics on “Marathon Of Anger” echoes the sentiments for reopening the country, but it turns the phrase on its head to convey all the hard work that’s required for real social change. “It’s time everyone got to work,” Brown sings on the chorus, underscoring the generational bickering wherein boomers point fingers at their “soft” grandchildren even though their grandchildren have been ravaged by recessions, debt and inflation. “Marathon Of Anger” evokes the Clash’s “The Guns Of Brixton” in the way that it’s a rhythmic call to arms. And, like all great lyrics, these could be bastardized by an audience they weren’t intended to represent. Maybe “Marathon Of Anger” isn’t quite the made-for-an-arena smash that was “Born In The USA,” but lyrically, it’s a 21st-century equivalent. 

Parquet Courts sound the most at home and alive on songs like album opener “Walking At A Downtown Pace” and “Homo Sapien.” On the latter, co-frontman Andrew Savage recalls the imagery he’d previously conjured on “Violence” from Wide Awake! with the lyric “A voice that recites the news and leaves out the gloomy bits.” In this version, the violence is absent from the radio broadcast, but it’s just as much of a part of human evolution as standing up straight. 

While finding meaning in something as meaningless as bathroom graffiti on “Walking At A Downtown Pace,” Parquet Courts show us that life is both everything and nothing. The annoying, insignificant, everyday moments in our lives that we’ve come to despise deserve our careful consideration because they ground us. Sympathy For Life is exactly as it sounds: a sympathy for routine, inconvenience and conflict. For life.

—Jacob Paul Nielsen