Album Reviews

Sympathy for Life “A Classic New York Record Bursting With Life”

Rick Sunday

Parquet Courts Sympathy for Life Album Review

Parquet Courts Sympathy for Life Album Review

New York City is a place of mythical transience. The capital of the present-day world — a teething, flourishing pile of crap that is modern existence. Its streets and buildings filled by armies of constantly developing and evolving worker bees, each determined to become the new queen, each driven by an unquenchable thirst for success, each willing to murder their peers in order to do so.

No matter how high one gets in the Big Apple, there’s always another floor, always another room, always another place to be considered better. The present is not enough. Not for the New Yorker. Survival is fleeting because it’s constantly changing. Things were cooler in Brooklyn ten years ago than they are now. And they were cooler ten years before that. And so on the story goes. Insanity brought to life. So it goes.

It’s an inevitable and repeating pattern, this great web of life flying around the Empire State Building. Outside of shameless capitalist pigs ready to pounce on the next Trump SPAC, you know what else that psychotic energy produces? Great fucking music.

Parquet Courts are now that band, the trendy one in the streets of the city who everyone knows. Maybe your buddy even worked with one of the members at some bar at some point a few years back doing that thing with that other thing. You know the vibes. They’ve been around for long enough to have history within the scene, and have continually challenged themselves to evolve their sound, matching the energy of the big building surrounding them. With their latest effort Sympathy for Life, the quintet’s seventh record, Parquet Courts delivered something kinetic, a project bursting with life that remains extremely focused. Not too unlike ol’ NYC itself.

“I’m making plans for the day all of this is through,” yelps Andrew Savage, co-frontman and songwriter as he kicks off the pulsing “Walking at a Downtown Pace,” Sympathy for Life’s first track. His vibrant spirit continues: “Seeing my path there, hearing the song I’ll sing and food that I’ll taste and all the drinks that I’ll consume, return the smile of an unmasked friend.”

After spending the previous two years locked inside due to the air being poisonous, this is the kind of energy the world’s spirit needs right now. And upon first listen, there’s an assumption that Sympathy for Life was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, a reaction to the claustrophobic lives forced upon humanity in 2020. (There’s literally a line about seeing an unmasked friend!) Yet what’s so trippy is that this album was written and recorded prior to lockdown and aforementioned masks and Zoom calls and remote Yoga and all that other stuff that seems so normal now. The takeaway here is that, obviously, Parquet Courts can see the future? Or…? Maybe that’s why they’re so damn loved by critics.

Anyway, about that recording process. For Sympathy for Life, the band brought in indie super producer Rodaidh McDonald — one of the primary brains behind the success of XL Recordings artists like the xx, King Krule, Sampha, and others — to help them channel a new sound. Savage and Austin Brown, the group’s other primary songwriter, actively wanted to bust out of the trappings of indie rock and evolve what Parquet Courts music could be — a smart decision for a band that’s been around for a decade.

During that time, they were listening to artists like Can while looking for inspiration from Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, a seminal 1991 album that fused indie rock and house music. In sessions, they’d jam for extended periods of time, which McDonald would record in full and then cut down at a later date, making most of the highlights and scrubbing the rest. This delicate decision making and attention to detail is felt across Sympathy for Life. A beautiful lesson in what the combination of hard work and editing can produce; these 11 tracks flow with elegance and purpose.

It’s through this focus that Parquet Courts have successfully evolved their sound without sounding hokey or cringy, which is often a mistake artists will make when they wanna try something new, man. From the jump, the band suggested that they wanted Sympathy for Life to not just be “another rock record.” Brown told Rolling Stone that he was disillusioned with the faux celebrity nature of the indie rock world, and that he found dance music freeing from stereotypical trappings. “The music is the thing that connects everybody,” he said. “There’s a DJ selecting tracks, but they’re really there to guide the party, and what grows from that are the feelings you leave with. Everyone’s there to foster and maintain a loving and caring community from night until the morning. That was massively inspiring. The music was inspiring. And the care that was taken to present the music in high fidelity is unparalleled. Rock became silly and frivolous in that situation.”

This kind of self-awareness is hard to come by in the music world, and it’s that understanding of themselves that makes Sympathy for Life successful — both critically and in the real world. There’s an effortless coolness to Parquet Courts, even though the music is sometimes so bombastic. Everyone wants to hang out with these guys right now for a reason. It comes from a place of confidence and self-assurance, but lacking an over-the-top ego. On “Pulcinella,” the slow-paced album closer, Savage sings about his maturation:

There are some places I won’t go near You can measure their fright by the shade I turn right when they’re asked about
I drag a chain of faces and names
Some I’ve cut off, some were lost, some will always be locked to me

He slyly belts these words over a grinding and fuzzy guitar, slowly rolling at its own pace. You don’t catch the New York groove without some reflective crooning. What is more New York than reflecting on what it used to be? There’s so much beauty to be found in the in-between moments of life, and the innate human ability to endure, and evolve. Challenges come. Egos are destroyed. But life prevails. All that’s required is a little bit of sympathy.

Parquet Courts’ Sympathy for Life Album Review Track By Track

1. Walking at a Downtown Pace

Length : 4:46

An immediately electric track, this opener sets the tone for Sympathy for Life. It’s the kind of anthemic banger that has the potential to define an era — and the ideal sing-a-long for a post-Covid 19 world. Giddy-up.

2. Black Widow Spider

Length : 2:50

This upbeat song is a great illustration of the band’s evolution. The driving guitars are infused with a thumping, pulsing energy and this baby is sure to light up the dance floor.

3. Marathon of Anger

Length : 4:35

Here’s where we see Parquet Courts’ playful experimentation — a scratchy, teething beat under warbly vocals that recall a subtle extravagance similar to early Roxy Music. “It’s time everyone got to work,” they shout, repeatedly, over evolving electro beats. Does anyone believe in capitalism anymore?

4. Just Shadows

Length : 3:56

This one’s for the guitar heads, and recalls the band’s earlier work, a thriving, oscillating, repeating guitar, strumming underneath commentary on the modern world: “Amazon fire, twenty percent off / Global cost, vast species death / Suggested for you / Curated life agrees with me / Programmed to know when I should sleep / And when to wake up / Preferences set, authorizing / Life’s not as modern as it seems.”

5. Plant Life

Length : 5:50

Ah, to be a tree blowing in the wind.

6. Application/Apparatus

Length : 4:36

This is one of the more dance-heavy tracks, full of experimentation. It opens with what could only be described as laser sounds. Soon, lyrics fly over the beeps and boops about bluetooth options and GPS navigation. Modernity is for the birds.

7. Homo Sapien

Length : 2:55

At moments, Sympathy for Life just simply rocks. This is one of those moments, a showcase in how to be heavy but not overt. Appropriately titled, this song makes you feel alive.

8. Sympathy for Life

Length : 2:50

This one is appropriately titled. It sounds like the dance floor, the bouncy, trippy beats recalling some other New York City music heroes, LCD Sound system.

9. Zoom Out

Length : 3:02

Another anthemic banger that floats right along the dance floor.

10. Trullo

Length : 3:01

This is the most introverted song on the record, lyrically exploring the challenging of being alive these days — wanting to push forward and go out into the world, yet feeling trapped by those same pressures.

11. Pulcinella

Length : 6:44

From the review: “What is more New York than reflecting on what it used to be? There’s so much beauty to be found in the in-between moments of life, and the innate human ability to endure, and evolve. Challenges come. Egos are destroyed. But life prevails. All that’s required is a little bit of sympathy.”

Rick Sunday

Rick Sunday

Rick Sunday is a writer and a traveler who’s been writing professionally about music and culture for over a decade. His creative work has appeared in a variety of publications of note, exploring the strange while finding inspiration in the in-between. He loves driving. He loves talking to strangers. And he loves the Grateful Dead. In his spare time, he writes a newsletter called COOL MUSIC, a semi-regular outlet for experimental writing, photography, and playlists.

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