If you’ve been following Parquet Courts for the past decade, the fact that their latest album, Sympathy for Life, is an homage to dance music won’t come as a surprise. Since their breakout Light Up Gold was released in 2013, the band have played with genres and influences like they’ve been rifling through a record collection. Sure, there’s the post-punk of Wire and the indie-rock of Pavement, but there’s also UGK, Nancy Sinatra, and the Beastie Boys. Their most recent album, 2018’s excellent Wide Awake! took that experimentation even further, leaning into 1970s funk and dub. It’s only logical that in 2021, as they enter their second decade as a band, they’d continue to see what sounds they’d like to try on.
This time, they’re inspired by dance parties’ communal, ecstatic atmosphere, following in the path of the many rock bands who have gone in the same direction. During the album’s early writing stages, frontman A. Savage taped a note to his wall that read “CAN, CANNED HEAT, THIS HEAT” to remind the record’s aim. In many ways, it’s a natural progression from Wide Awake’s emphasis on the low-end. In fact, some of the tracks on Sympathy for Life would not have been out of place on that record. The propulsive drums on “Walking at a Downtown Pace” could be synced up with Wide Awake!’s title track. Meanwhile, Savage’s description of the bleaker aspects of modern living (“Planning the future as if time is yours to choose / Pick out a movie. A sandwich from a screen”) aren’t too far removed from the existential longing of “Normalisation” and “NYC Observation”. Likewise, “Black Widow Spider” and “Homo Sapien” place drum fills and bass drops to the front of the mix as if they’ve been designed with subwoofers in mind.
Unlike previous records, though, the band tracked the album through extended jam sessions, hoping to capture the hypnotic energy of a great DJ set. Understandably, those sessions were edited down from their long run times and reconfigured for Sympathy for Life. The problem, though, is that the editing often steps on the LPs aspirations. The band are clearly aiming for the trance of repetition and the ecstasy of a hard-earned climax, but the confines of the album never provide the necessary space.
If that sounds a bit too abstract, look no further than “Plant Life”. On Sympathy for Life, it’s a six-minute song that makes good enough use of Sean Yeaton’s bassline, though the album version presents it as a more conventional song, centered around Austin Brown’s chorus. Compare that with the original 12″ single version of the song, released back in June. At ten minutes, it provides the band all of the space to build a groove, deconstruct it, and then start the process all over again. You hear every element in the room and understand its place in the larger groove. Brown’s chorus, the one that the album version focuses on, is nothing more than an afterthought — it’s a precursor to the actual heartbeat of the song.
The problem repeats on “Marathon of Anger”, a song resembling more than one Talking Heads track. The song opens with a pulsating, ominous synth, eventually leading into singer Brown’s chanted incantation supporting 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests: “It’s time everyone got to work!” His voice mirrors the unsettling paranoia of David Byrne, but the track fades out before the band, or the song, takes flight. By the end of its four and a half minutes, I’m wondering what was left on the cutting room floor. What I’m missing from that original take that must’ve made the band so excited?
More than anything, that’s Sympathy for Life’s biggest flaw. Despite the pronounced influence of dance music, the band never entirely takes advantage of time and space, some of the genre’s most potent elements. In the process, Savage and Brown, whose sharp and incisive songs are usually packed with instant quotables, are focused more on sound than substance. If these tracks were something closer to extended dancefloor mixes, that decision would be a wise one, but in this condensed form, it only feels like the band has sacrificed one of their biggest strengths for a half-baked concept.
There’s still much to admire about Sympathy for Life and a band willing to continue pushing the limits of their sound. Parquet Courts have become such a reliable institution that it’s easy to overlook the gorgeous closer “Pulcinella”. There’s not much that the song shares with dance music, except that it reminds me of “Damaged”, the Stones-esque ballad from Primal Scream’s Madchester classic Screamadelica. It’s not a complete reinvention of the Parquet Courts sound. Still, it sounds just refined enough, just imbued with enough intriguing and unexpected influences, that it ends Sympathy for Life on a resounding high.