Parquet Courts teased their sixth album Sympathy for Life by releasing the 10-minute “Plant Life” on vinyl only. That kind of marketing decision isn’t so unusual on its face; even in the ’90s, during the vinyl format’s nadir, plenty of bands still released 7-inches. But the implications are somewhat different in an age where instant streaming is the norm. For a few months at least, you couldn’t hear this song anywhere but on a 12-inch record, one you presumably would yield a greater degree of your attention to without allowing it to drift into the background and fade into being audio wallpaper.
This isn’t out of character for Parquet Courts, a band with zero social media presence and who up until last year didn’t even have a Bandcamp page. It’s not so much luddism as a healthy level of distance from the toxicity of digital connection—vocalist/guitarist Andrew Savage has said that he doesn’t own a smartphone, and “Content Nausea,” all the way back in 2014, articulated his cynicism about onscreen living: “But still no-one came or left they just stayed/But they weren’t there in the first place/Overpopulated by nothing, crowded by a sparseness/Guided by darkness, too much, not enough.” But the group’s songs—documents of post-breakup depression and the absurdity of capitalist society—deal in a kind of vulnerability and honesty that inspirational quotes and leg day selfies never could. “Plant Life,” in a sense, is much the same, a disco-krautrock groover inspired by Austin Brown’s own experience falling in love again with music through dancefloor liberation. Not a phone in sight, just people living in the moment.
Sympathy for Life is by and large an album-length extension of that very idea, an album of intoxicating funk and disco numbers that finds Parquet Courts aiming their anxious, jittery post-punk directly to the hips and loins. The band’s mined this ground before, most notably on the title track of 2018’s Wide Awake!, but where that agitated, exclamatory disco-punk track employed the group’s guitar-scratch in the context of woodblock and cowbell, the tracks on Sympathy For Life are less prickly or raw. The grooves here are deeper and smoother, suffused with hedonic Hacienda pulses and Screamadelica glory. The wah-wah funk bassline of “Marathon of Anger” is exquisitely sleek, and “Trullo,” all minimalist low-end pulse, thumps rather than scrapes or squeals.
What Sympathy for Life brings about in terms of sonic maturation, a purely joyful musical experience as fun as anything the band’s ever done, it still heavily traffics in the kinds of angst and frustration that Parquet Courts have articulated so well throughout the past decade. “Walking at a Downtown Pace” opens the record amid peak social distancing—Savage planning the meals he wants to eat at his favorite restaurants, treasuring “the crowds that once made me act so annoyed/Sometimes I wonder how long ’til I’m a face in one?” But the dancefloor beat beneath the pent-up someday hopefulness, suggests celebration rather than mourning. But however much the group yearns for those moments of revelry, there’s still ache and uncertainty on Sympathy for Life, as when Savage confesses “I’m tryin’ to forget about someone I love” on “Black Widow Spider” or realizes “Then suddenly, I am alone, in the truest sense of the word” on “Just Shadows.”
The hypnotic title track, rife with glimmering Herbie Hancock-like flashes of Rhodes licks, offers a sort of antidote, one that echoes the kind of joyful inspiration that fuels “Plant Life.” “Touch, scream/Express yourself/feel free,” Savage sings. The format or social media feed aren’t really important, and it’s going to take a lot more than self-expression to fix a broken society. But Sympathy for Life offers the optimistic suggestion that maybe music and dance finding the joy within that isn’t a bad start.
Label: Rough Trade
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.