The creative path walked by Parquet Courts has been colorful and winding, shifting gradually from the electrified punky rush of their 2012 breakthrough album Light Up Gold to the angular funk of their Danger Mouse-produced sixth album, 2018's Wide Awake! Seventh album Sympathy for Life ventures even further away from the band's rock roots, exploring trance-inducing club beats, dub experimentation, and a fusion of both organic and electronic forms of psychedelia. With song structures stitched together from meticulously edited improvised jams and further refined with production help from Hot Chip and David Byrne collaborator Rodaidh McDonald, the songs here flow together like unrelated segments of a dream. The Primal Scream-inspired "Walking at a Downtown Pace" kicks things off with a buzzy bassline and a wash of trippy guitars kept from falling into complete chaos by the danceable rhythms. The song takes notes directly from the Manchester club scene of the late '80s and early '90s, but vocalist Andrew Savage's unvarnished vocals give the song a distinctive energy that keeps it from being a complete homage. Moments later, "Black Widow Spider" delivers an odd combination of wobbly distorted bass tones, Krautrock-esque repetition, and muted melodic phrasing that feel almost Kinks-like. This combination of approaches results in a surreal feeling that can be pinned down to any of its individual elements, and that kind of unexpected synthesis becomes the album's mission statement. Whether it's the dubby swirl of the Remain in Light-indebted "Marathon of Anger," the ambient funk of "Plant Life," or the Afrobeat tinges of "Zoom Out," the band ties together disparate styles and stretches them out into lengthy, lingering atmospheres. Only the garage guitars and shouty vocals of "Homo Sapien" abruptly break up the hypnotic flow of the album with a call back to the rugged punk outbursts of the band's earlier days. Still, the thick processing and electronic drums take the song out of by-the-numbers garage punk territory, and the title track which immediately follows changes course completely with a cold drum groove and dreamy, frost-coated keyboard lines. The funky, danceable Parquet Courts that emerged on Wide Awake! delivered songs that felt celebratory and enthusiastic. Sympathy for Life loses none of that album's funkiness, but twists it into strange and more cerebral forms. Instead of party-starting excitement, the band refracts echoes of Can, Bowie, and the Talking Heads at their most abstract for an album that feels tense and bleary, like a party that's still fun but has burned on for so long that the sun is coming up and things are starting to get weird.
Sympathy for Life Review
by Fred Thomas