sympathy for life by parquet courts

New York-based Parquet Courts are back, this time with two new singles from their first album in three years, Sympathy for Life.

Frontman Andrew Savage, whose vocals strike a balance between Jonathan Richman and Edwyn Collins, leads listeners through tracks that address loss with relative detachment. In true Parquet Courts fashion, regardless of the emotional heft of the subject matter, Savage sounds less impassioned and devastated than soberingly defeated. He doesn’t use a track to flesh out his feelings or exploit them to inspire relatability; rather, he relays them matter-of-factly, maintaining a safe distance between himself and the emotional labor that comes with tracing the origins of such feelings.

The band’s music has always been incredibly human, and genre-defying, in this way: refusing to honor rock cliches yet including nods to favorite bands in reverence, possessing a preoccupation with the concept of emotion yet a reluctance to open itself up to sentimentality. It’s straightforward, unattached rock, self-conscious but never to the extent of navel-gazing. Parquet Courts themselves are a band of contradictions, of a sonic narrative based on the nervous, ever-changing ruminations of four guys who are still wrestling with what it means to be alive and to be a rock band. On their new tracks, Black Widow Spider and Walking at a Downtown Pace, the band continues this tradition of doing what they do best: reckoning with the human condition, not by dissecting it to death but by turning up the volume and dancing when life gets overwhelming.

On Black Widow Spider, the “spider” in question is Savage’s catch-all term for a personal demon, be it a former lover or a lost friend, whose loss plagues him. They’re the constant menace lingering, their memory always threatening to sober him up or spoil the evening. He tries to outrun his own memories, but as he laments, “peace comes in pieces and pea-sized bits” with complete solace always just out of reach. The lyrics are delivered in Savage’s signature monotone; you can almost hear the half-hearted shrug as he delivers lines about his life that he’ll immediately subvert.

The brassy drums and thundering guitars laced with reverb coalesce to form a track that builds and maintains a steady groove, combining rock, punk, and even garage. The track takes it time, concerned less with reaching a head-banging climax than jamming out and having a good time throughout. It’s charged, never lacking in energy, but it doesn’t feel the need to resort to instrumental melodrama for the sake of making a moment. It simply is what it is: a track undermining our notions of what a rock song can be.

Walking at a Downtown Pace, however, is a raucous number more characteristic of the four-piece. A pandemic anthem if there ever was one, the track captures the process of relearning how to treasure what’s around us, not by choice but by force. “I’m making plans for the day all of this is through,” Savage asserts, waiting for the day that coexisting with loved ones can continue as it once was. He vows to take his time on his city streets, being thankful for the crowds instead of silently cursing them under his breath. In between projections of missed opportunities onto the future, there are moments of self-reflection—realizing that the pandemic has rendered us all helpless numbers in a system, for example, or finding both your needs and wants unattainable in the face of crisis.

The single reads like a Covid-era diary entry, a relic of a time we’ll never forget and an accurate encapsulation of how it feels to be plucked away from each other and into isolation. The chorus is a collective sigh of relief, driven by layers of pent-up shouting, as the band members tackle tedium, shifting priorities, and the ways of living they took for granted. It’s cymbal-driven, instantly danceable and explosive. A sauntering, smooth guitar solo leads listeners out of the track, offering a respite and a comedown from the high of all that frustration.

On these two singles, Parquet Courts prep fans for what is poised to be another album full of the quirks and qualities that have made them indie darlings. Their instrumentation still possesses creativity and experimental qualities, while their lyrics avoid dipping into tropes and favor simple, plain-stated expressions of self. Even in the pandemic era, they’ve managed to make music that somehow induces emotions while steering clear of affording them much precious mental real estate. They’re a band with an image composed less of what they are, and more of what they’re not: concerned with what it means to be a “true” rock band.

Sympathy for Life is out October 22nd from Rough Trade Records; listen to it here.

Words by Meg