Sympathy for Life
Rough Trade · October 22, 2021
Parquet Courts had a lot to live up to following their 2018 release Wide Awake!, which deftly wove together coarse vocals, funky basslines, fast guitars, and incredibly socially conscious lyrics to achieve a true indie rock/art punk triumph. With Sympathy for Life, they fell so unbelievably short of their previous releases that I’m partially inclined to believe the album was recorded and released purely through a contractual obligation.
Preceded by three singles, Sympathy for Life has an okay start. “Walking at a Downtown Pace,” the first single and also the album’s opener, begins with four bars of a punchy live drum loop that’s soon followed by an explosive guitar riff chorus that wouldn’t be out of place in The Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth. Although It’s repetitive and too long, the song delivers what its title promises: Its lyrical musings on plans for a post-covid world combined with its thumping instrumental create a single that’ll have any casual listener power-walking down Huntington Ave.
The rest of the songs, however, are where Sympathy for Life goes downhill. With little hyperbole, every song on the album can be sorted into one of three categories: tedious indie rock, dance beats that you can’t really dance to, and two songs that are actually good, but are very disjointed from one another.
TEDIOUS INDIE ROCK
“Black Widow Spider,” “Homo Sapien,” “Zoom Out,” “Just Shadows,” “Walking at a Downtown Pace”
Each song feels like a halfhearted attempt to reclaim the head-banging magic of Wide Awake!. “Just Shadows” is the most egregious offender, sounding like a high school cover band’s take on the former album’s “Freebird II” (same chord progression for the intro, just played in a less compelling way!) Yet, not even those that try something new hit the spot. The vocals are missing their familiar ferocity, the bass lines are weak, and the guitar parts – my gosh! The guitar parts. More than one of these songs are made up of just one chord played over and over. I’m not even exaggerating! The entire verse in “Black Widow Spider” is just an E major chord, and that of “Homo Sapien” is just a C# major chord. Both just played over, and over, and over.
It begs the question – were they even trying? I mean this seriously. I’m all for musical innovation, and I’m always down for some ambient drone chord experimentation, but if it’s a rock song, please, for crying out loud, throw in at least two chords for the verse. All Wreckless Eric needed was an E and an A for the entirety of “Whole Wide World” and he had the hit of a lifetime. Pitchfork notes that much of this album was stitched together through hours of jam sessions at Brooklyn DIY shows, so that could explain a little bit of how musically cautious these tracks are, but wow. Uninteresting, repetitive, and even frustrating to listen to at times, these five tracks are very much not worth a listen. On to the next four!
DANCE BEATS THAT YOU CAN’T REALLY DANCE TO
“Marathon of Anger,” “Application/Apparatus,” “Sympathy for Life,” “Trullo”
Defying all odds, an album that’s host to so many boring and uninspired tracks also boasts an impressive resume of… really weird and terrible dance songs! Mix grooveless drum beats with headache-inducing synths and flimsy guitar riffs and you reap exactly what you sow: moldy jams. The instrumental intro to “Marathon of Anger” somehow manages to conjure a deeply claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in a never-ending fluorescent-lit maze of office spaces, “Application/Apparatus” is a masterclass in how not to write the climax of a song, “Zoom Out” sounds like a gaggle of dads shouting along to the Grateful Dead, and “Trullo” is catastrophically bad to the point of being genuinely rage-inducing.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Andrew Savage detailed how after trying acid, doing pushups, and LOVING IT, he decided to go on a vision quest to a small village in Italy, take large doses of acid, work out a lot, and be an artist. Perhaps the artistic enlightenment that I’ve heard comes with a mind freed by heavy usage of psychedelics will shine through on the next Parquet Courts album. Until then, these terribly devoid Joy Division d-sides / pale Speaking in Tongues imitations are skips, skips, skips!
THE GOOD ONES
“Plant Life,” “Pulcinella”
Despite their abysmal surroundings, two tracks manage to shine as beacons of light amongst the sludge – “Plant Life” and “Pulcinella” are everything that the album set out to be. “Plant Life” could be an indie-dance-pop hit any day of the week, with cute Plantasia synths, groovy basslines, and overlapping narration forming the only actually danceable “dance” track on the album. “Pulcinella,” clocking in at just under seven minutes, is a lush ballad that perfectly captures Savage’s unique voice and wandering vocals, with its moving instrumental using repetition correctly for the first time on the entire album, but not before its lyrics end with the beautiful line, “Who am I when I can’t be unwound? / ‘Darling, it’s me,’ as the mask comes off / ‘It always was.’”
While Sympathy for Life was a disappointing flop, those two ditties left me with a glimmer of hope for any of Parquet Courts’ future releases. Here’s to the power of acid!