Parquet Courts never sounded quite so damaged as they did on 2016′s Human Performance. On that album, frontman Andrew Savage seemed to be performing from within the grips of a deep melancholy, his typically witty, humorous narratives undercut with a more crippling existential crisis than before, while the songs themselves had dropped in tempo considerably. To call it a “sad” album might not have entirely been accurate, more that its angst was more palpable than on any of the band’s prior albums. Three years prior, Savage was looking to cure the munchies; on “Human Performance,” he was asking some pretty heavy questions about what it means to actually be human—or at least how to pass for one in public.
A lot has happened since then. Parquet Courts backed Italian vocalist Daniele Luppi on 2017′s MILANO while Savage himself released his debut solo album, Thawing Dawn. There was also this election, a lot of really frustrating global political stuff—everything that’s been seeping into everyone’s albums for the past two years, basically. So while Parquet Courts are by no means a different band on Wide Awake! than they were two years ago, they’ve processed a lot in that time and ended up in an entirely different place, one less deeply personal and more concerned with holding on to joy, compassion and optimism in the face of external factors that chip away at those very things. In essence, it’s a manic, giddy, sometimes absurd cry for sanity when such a thing is in short supply.
Produced by Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, Wide Awake! could have very easily packaged that cry for sanity in the clothing of 21st century pop music. It doesn’t really, not any more than any prior Parquet Courts album, in that most of the album feels like something that the band would have done otherwise with any other producer. “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience,” for instance, sounds exactly like Parquet Courts at their best, scratchy guitar chords juxtaposed against a driving, skittering rhythm as Savage addresses the kind of frazzled absurdity faced daily in the age of Trump: “Why am I searching for reason? I’m in the chaos dimension/ Reasons eclipsed by tension.” There’s a similarly tense fuzz-and-jangle to opening track “Total Football,” whose title references a phrase made popular in the ’70s by the Dutch national football team, suggesting the idea that any player can take over the role of any other player if necessary. As the song grows more intense as it nears the end, Savage takes a moment to explore some complex concepts of ideology and community: “collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive!” Yet he saves the best punchline for the end: “And fuck Tom Brady!”
While Wide Awake! doesn’t find Parquet Courts abandoning the post-punk scrape of their prior records, it’s easily their most experimental in terms of style. It works in large part simply because the songs are good. Very good. The disco punk of the title track is the most fun surprise here, all cowbell, whistle and funky guitar scratch, and the band simply nails it. There’s a touch of psychedelic soul to the organ groove of “Violence,” while “Before the Water Gets Too High” drones with a spacious kraut-funk sound. There are, however, some more over-the-top moments that feel somewhat out of place. “Back to Earth” is the one song that sounds most overtly connected to other Danger Mouse productions (Broken Bells, Gorillaz, Beck), and it’s an awkward fit as a result. The hip-hop Spaghetti Western production is certainly interesting, but sandwiched between some of the band’s sharper-edged tracks, it sounds like another band snuck onto the album. There’s a similar issue with “Death Will Bring Change,” a jazzy art-rock song punctuated by some weirdly jarring sounds of a children’s choir.
The less successful experiments on Wide Awake! don’t necessarily make the album any less of a joy to listen to, but they fragment it a bit. And that could well be by design; Parquet Courts spend much of the album addressing a fragmented world, and it’s only fitting that their snapshot of this “chaos dimension” reflect that in its songs. What Wide Awake! sacrifices in the cohesion and emotional weight of Human Performance it makes up for in simply capturing the band at their most fun.