Album Review: Parquet Courts – Sympathy For Life

[Rough Trade; 2021]

The Brooklyn-based punk rockers Parquet Courts have unfortunately fallen in the same category as most musical acts since the start of the pandemic — their album was recorded and mixed just a short while before COVID hit, which ultimately delayed its release for a year. It has honestly become almost unbearable to constantly view new albums and other content through the lens of the pandemic, but with Sympathy for Life it is needed.

What jumps out throughout Sympathy For Life is the evolution of Parquet Courts’ sound. Their 2018 smashing success Wide Awake! was mostly a straight up contemporary punk album, but their new one moves in a different direction from that – yet still keeps up with their signature style. As co-frontman Austin Brown put it: “Seven albums in, the pressure is on to do something new, but still sound like us.”

The initial and most obvious impression that one has when listening is the influence of Talking Heads, and this album was produced with Rodaidh McDonald, who collaborated with David Byrne on American Utopia. Specifically, Sympathy for Life is much more about rhythm than melody, and, as the band puts it: “Wide Awake! was a record you could put on at a party, Sympathy For Life is influenced by the party itself”. Now, it’s unknown whether anyone has actually tried playing a song from Wide Awake! at a party, but Sympathy For Life is clearly the album for that, with its pulsating rhythms undergirding catchy melodies.

Sympathy for Life‘s strongest moments come in the songs that sound least like the Parquet Courts we’ve known before, such as the minimal electro of “Marathon of Anger”, the extended trance jam “Plant Life”, and the instrumentally nimble title track. Then again, other tracks such as “Black Widow Spider” and “Just Shadows” posses the charm that we have come to know and love from the band, and the melodies are still insanely catchy.

Obviously, Sympathy for Life was made just a short while before the world went into lockdown, which is why it can’t literally be about the pandemic – however, the delay and eventual timing of its release does chime with its themes – the refrain of “it’s time everyone gone to work” in “Marathon of Anger” seems to echo the premature acceptance of a return to normality. Parquet Courts have always been known for their thought-provoking lyrics, which this time work in a slightly different manner. On surface level, we hear words about today’s increasingly alienated society, all the gadgets that we are in love with, and other topics that have been heavily present in modern music.

However, once deep enough into Sympathy For Life, it becomes second nature to relate the lyrics on this album to the pandemic. Most obviously, the opening “Walking At A Downtown Pace” and closing “Pulcinella” both reference the concept of masks, which is certainly up there with the most uttered words of the last two years. There are also more subtle, but just as easily relatable lyrics, such as, for instance, “Then suddenly I am alone / In the truest sense of the word / With nothing else to hear or watch” in “Just Shadows”.

The beautiful thing with Sympathy for Life is that it is flexible and will be viewed completely differently once we get over COVID. Most albums that directly relate to this era in our history will be seen as period pieces from this time, whereas Parquet Courts’ latest album will live on and be heard from an entirely different perspective years down the line; and will be played at future parties.