Parquet Courts’ seventh album was written pre-pandemic, its release delayed for obvious reasons. But that gave the band a chance for some original thinking. There are 11 tracks on Sympathy For Life and, to promote the album, each track has been tied into a global event (‘The Power Of Eleven’), for example a track being played by a marching band (The Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps) in New York City. And it’s this track – Walking At A Downtown Place – that opens the collection. It also happens to be the best here by some distance.
Opening an album with the best track and lead single is always a questionable decision as it’s clearly going to be downhill from then on – just ask fellow New Yorkers The Bravery. In this case though, that’s more to do with the appeal of the opening track in that it’s not standard Parquet Courts fodder. There was a desire on Sympathy For Life to create something different, something dancey in fact, a distinct choice brought on by the band attending various clubs, parties – you name it – and the nightlife influence is apparent from the outset. Built around a bass line that could easily be from a Charlatans single, it’s a whole lot poppier and catchier than we are perhaps used to from them. It’s undoubtedly Parquet Courts, but at the same time it’s more uplifting and melodic; mission accomplished, then.
Having also been inspired by Primal Scream‘s Screamadelica, perhaps this was always going to be a detour from the norm associated with a slacker rock band closely comparable to acts like Pavement. But Sympathy For Life sounds nothing like Screamadelica, an album only made possible by the late Andrew Weatherall being let loose to mix away until things became unrecognisable. That hasn’t happened here, and producer Rodaidh McDonald (Hot Chip, David Byrne) ensured the band retained their core. Comparisons to Byrne’s Talking Heads perhaps make more sense than Screamadelica.
Another key element to Sympathy For Life and the change within the band is the lack of anger on show. For sure, you’re not going to create a feel good dance-flecked collection with deep rooted anger as a driver, but fans will be divided over the results because that was often part of the attraction. Just Shadows isn’t a nod to themselves and their past but it does epitomise another characteristic of the album, in that many tracks were derived from whittled down jams. Again, no anger on show and its pleasant vibe feels like you’ve been transported back to the 1960s, watching one of those bands that never quite made it in the public eye but would have had a substantial underground following – the guitar soloing is a delight.
Plant Life is more of a drugged-up psychedelic jam, bland until a synth-backed chorus kicks in, while Homo Sapien leans more towards the raucously fuzzy slacker rock guitars of old set to a repetitive hook. The title track is another with a jam feel, like a jazzy lounge music creation, and lengthy closer Pulcinella develops from a slow trudge into a far more appealing instrumental lead out, again showing jamming session hallmarks.
Experimentation is on show too, with Trullo using effects and spacey blips, but it’s rather dull, as is Application Apparatus, despite sporting what could be a Fujiya & Miyagi bass line. Curveball Marathon Of Anger intrigues, however, with its distinctly oddball intro leading into a psychedelic haze – imagine a psych rock band trying to play a Kraftwerk track.
So there’s still somewhat of an eclectic feel to Sympathy For Life despite its intended dance focus. Yes, it’s different and at times more uplifting than most Parquet Courts albums, but it’s an album for the band, not for the fans. Which is fine, of course, and whatever they put out on record is fairly irrelevant anyway considering the massive live appeal they generate and thrive on. But if times were different and they were relying on record and CD sales to keep them afloat, this probably wouldn’t be an album to get cash tills overflowing.