Not counting Milano (a 2017 collaborative concept album done with composer Daniele Luppi), or Content Nausea (a 2014 recording released under the name Parkay Quarts that primarily featured only half the group’s members), Sympathy for Life is Parquet Courts’ fifth studio album. With production by John Parish (PJ Harvey, Dry Cleaning) and Rodaidh McDonald (King Krule, Sampha), the band’s latest full-length finds the New York City foursome ping-ponging between Talking Heads-like danceable jams and straightforward, midtempo indie rock.
Andrew Savage and company waste no time before reminding us of the catchy, upbeat rhythms they’re capable of, which were used to great effect on the Danger Mouse-produced Wide Awake! “Walking At a Downtown Pace” utilizes a tempo similar to the aforementioned album’s title track but includes more edge, adding a siren-like lead guitar crying sustained notes just under the song’s hypnotic percussion and bass. The hard-driving single “Black Widow Spider” finds Andrew’s vocals tempered to the point where, if you didn’t know better, you might think you were hearing a guest feature from smooth crooner Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens. Sympathy for Life’s first two songs set a pattern for the rest of the album wherein an indie rock number, typical of Parquet Courts’ output prior to 2018, is followed by an extended groove.
The lyrics on Sympathy for Life deal largely with city living in the 21st century, the alienating and overarching effects of technology, and last summer’s protests. During “Marathon of Anger’s” first of two short choruses, Savage sing-speaks, “We’ve got the power, the streets are walkin’, a marathon of anger,” just before the shouted chorus of, “It’s time everyone gone to work!” The first third of Sympathy for Life is concluded with the odd waltz “Just Shadows”. The leapfrog pattern continues in the song sequence, as the near-six-minute “Plant Life” arrives next, complete with a spoken word moment delivered in a style reminiscent of David Byrne.
Sympathy for Life’s second side opens with the cold “Application Apparatus”. Tinged with retro electronic effects, the song’s lyrics describe an Uber car ride in which the narrator finds comfort in the synthetic voice of the GPS. The all-out rocker “Homo Sapien”, the fourth and final single teased prior to Sympathy for Life’s release, has Savage angrily shouting lyrics that hold up modern conveniences against our animal urges. The record’s title track kicks off the final third of Sympathy for Life. The addition of bongos and an electronic piano add colorful flourishes to the thick groove laid down by bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage. As if having found his momentum on the preceding song, Yeaton’s bass features prominently on the funky “Zoom Out”, a soulful moment that makes the most of every second of its three-minute runtime.
In addition to being the record’s closer, “Pulcinella” is also Sympathy for Life’s only ballad. After ten songs consisting of mostly upbeat moments, going out on a slow, somber note is an odd sequential choice, not to mention a patience-tester. At just under seven minutes, the track is an unfortunate slog amidst this predominantly solid collection.
Sympathy for Life will be looked back upon as an obvious, safe next step following the critically acclaimed, palette-broadening Wide Awake! The band wisely expand upon the ideas that worked well on their prior release without abandoning their signature sound. A decade into their career, Parquet Courts hold firm to the indie rock that came to define them while successfully interweaving their own brand of avant-funk.