Type “Parquet Courts” into the search bar of any social media platform, and your results are guaranteed to be fruitless. By abstaining from the digital world which consumes so much of our lives — and is typically responsible for the promotion of music artists — the 2010s alt-rock band has solidified its stance as a symbol of counter-culture. Parquet Courts’s sound mirrors this image, or lack thereof, drawing inspiration from definitive ’90s alt-scene artists like Pavement and Built to Spill to establish themselves with similar distinction two decades later.
Throughout Parquet Courts’s first six records, frontman Andrew Savage borrows musical techniques from ’90s alt-rock — his flat, dejected vocals grind against gritty guitar, producing a sarcastic feeling with cynical meaning embedded in the lyrics. In their 2018 record Wide Awake!, Parquet Courts departed from their typical style and opted for a light bluesy, funky sound. The album was a success (three of the band’s most popular songs are from the album), so Parquet Courts continued their experimentation in their most recent album, Sympathy for Life — countering their self-established counter-culture and creating a new sound along the way.
From the first few seconds of the opening track, “Walking at a Downtown Pace,” Max Savage’s funk-filled drumming pattern sounds nothing like the older rock rhythms of Human Performance (2016) or Sunbathing Animal (2014). The song explodes into a bouncing melody, as Andrew Savage and Austin Brown’s guitars work together to back Savage’s grainy vocals of poetic lyrics like “I’ve found a reason to exist, waving on the top undercover wall, begging not to go extinct.”
Whereas Parquet Courts’s older albums are perfect for bobbing your head as you walk down the street, the tracks on Sympathy for Life invite you to be the first one out boogying on the dance floor. Not only is this funk-filled sound promoted by groovy drumbeats and bluesy guitar, but tracks like “Black Widow Spider” and “Plant Life” utilize an ’80s-esque sparkly synth that melts into dancey acoustic beats, a musical technique Parquet Courts have dabbled with in their past, but never as prominently as in Sympathy for Life. The song “Application/Apparatus” opens with electronic beeps and sirens reminiscent of retro video games, which Savage sings against in his usual unamused way, employing a new sound to pair with his tried-and-true style. Parquet Courts also experiments with more tangible instruments, such as the cowbell and vibraslap in “Just Shadows,” going for a more avant-garde sound than their usual straightforward alt-rock.
Not only does Sympathy for Life break away musically from Parquet Courts’s typical releases, it breaks from their storytelling attitude, too. A distinctive aspect of their first six records was Andrew Savage’s cynical and nihilistic lyrics, spreading messages of sarcasm and irony. However, in Sympathy for Life, stories are told about the meaning of life, avoiding ex-lovers, and personal growth. “I go out to a movie in the city, and I can’t seem to shake off the mood,” Savage sings in “Black Widow Spider.” “I like to watch an actor and act like them, pretend I’m a different dude.” Savage exposes his raw emotions and weak spots, displaying a more emotionally complex side of himself than in past records. In “Just Shadows” he sings, “Then suddenly everything’s calm and there’s black winter mud on your feet and the thick net of fibers that you passed through are like a memory you dragged to delete” — a poetic metaphor for difficult human problems that never would have appeared on Parquet Courts’s previous work. In transforming their sound from one of predictably cynical alt-rock to a funk-filled dance fest that meditates on shared human experiences, Parquet Courts have created a record that the world needs.
As we emerge from the lockdown of COVID-19 and begin to breathe a global sigh of relief, we crave (and deserve) what Sympathy for Life has to offer: a reason to get up and dance, and a voice that hears and reflects our struggles. When listening to this record, we should remember its title and try to garner a sense of sympathy and understanding toward life — including all the funky ups and complicated downs it entails.
Daily Arts Writer Bella Greenbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.