Depending on how you tally all the things that they wrote—if you include, for example, the unofficial first album, American Specialties, released 10 years ago, or Milano, their 2017 collaboration with Italian composer Daniele Luppi and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O—you might consider their latest, Sympathy For Life, to be the eighth LP from punk-rock quartet Parquet Courts. But no matter the total output, they are, at this point, fairly well into a career—a designation they would almost certainly be uncomfortable with—and after a decade of making music, patterns have emerged.
Each of Parquet Courts’ albums has had a way of carrying something over from the one before it, and Sympathy For Life functions as a kind of composite of the band’s most recent moves. As on 2018’s Wide Awake!, there’s a sense of exuberant collectivity. But there are also dark, moody synths; flat talk-singing; and a healthy bit of noise. Andrew Savage and Austin Brown’s lyrics, so often about the alienation that stems from modern life, once again tumble forth as a catalog of bombardments born from capitalism and a general apathy on the part of the masses. The question, as it’s been since the band’s birth, is this: When imposing systemic forces are constantly pulling you toward a flattened mean, how to remain one’s jagged, multitudinous self?
Compared with Parquet Courts’ liveliest, and—in my mind—best albums (Light Up Gold, Sunbathing Animal, and Wide Awake!), Sympathy For Life comes in at a more uniform register, similar to that of 2016’s Human Performance. They get a little weird and groovy throughout, but they’re not staying up too late. But despite not ascending as many peaks or hitting those harder punk punctuations, the album does clock another entry in the registry of Parquet Courts’ most underrated strengths as a band: their comedown songs.
In Parquet Courts’ hands, the comedown song is something of a relinquishment, a giving over. It’s what follows the catharsis of righteous anger. It’s what happens after the waters rise enough to flood. For a band that first became known for the wild and woolly energy (yet tightly controlled execution) of its earlier work, as in breakout album Light Up Gold, its comedown songs, often slower and more melodic, make for incredibly satisfying breaks in the pattern.
The best examples of this are songs like “Instant Disassembly” off of 2014’s Sunbathing Animal and “Pretty Machines” from Content Nausea (also from 2014, but not quite a proper Courts LP, as it was recorded mainly by lead singers Savage and Brown, though the band’s hallmarks remain). These songs settle in, build themselves up, and stretch out. Certain shorter, midtempo tracks, like “Freebird II” and “Tenderness,” also encapsulate a similar feeling of denouement and release.
The final track on Sympathy For Life is the latest exemplar of such a song. “Pulcinella” is a ballad of interpersonal connection and rupture, of alternately hiding from and then showing oneself to others. It’s nearly seven minutes long, and in it Savage walks through his past, mapped onto the physical world, before the composition opens up for an extended climax of ascending guitars. As with Parquet Courts’ other comedown songs, “Pulcinella” is more introspective and emotionally revealing than much of their catalog—a journal entry or letter rather than hoarse-voiced declarations shouted into a bullhorn.
Appearing on Sympathy For Life, which unfolds somewhat evenly, “Pulcinella” doesn’t quite achieve the culminating effect it might have were it on another album, as the difference between this song and the 10 that come before it isn’t so pronounced. Put another way: It’s not as powerful as their other comedown songs, because on Sympathy Of Life there’s less to come down from.
By contrast, a song like “Instant Disassembly,” perhaps the quintessential Parquet Courts comedown, appears after an incredible run of fast and noisy tunes on Sunbathing Animal. The sequence begins with the rousing rejoinder “Always Back In Town” and the surrealist “She’s Rolling,” and continues with the frenetic title track, where Savage et al. play so rapidly it sounds like they’re trying to outrace each other. There’s a brief instrumental interlude, then begins the resigned entreaty of “Instant Disassembly,” a song about getting so fucked up that you can feel yourself coming undone in real time.
Placed where it is, “Instant Disassembly” comes as a relief from the speed and volume that precedes it. As a listener, you’ve been revved up a lot, beaten up a little, and are now being pulled in for an embrace. This is true not just musically but lyrically as well: “Mamacita, I’ve prepared my defense,” Savage sings. “Flawed as ever in the drunkest tense / Kept repeating, kept repeating myself / In my native tongue the parlance of the problem itself.” It’s an incredibly coherent song about becoming incredibly incoherent.
While “Freebird II” doesn’t build up or draw itself out in the same way that a song like “Instant Disassembly” does, it’s no less cathartic. It also disrupts a pattern, following, as it does, the high energy of “Almost Had To Start A Fight/In And Out Of Patience” on Wide Awake!, an album that sublimated the hard-hitting arrangements of Light Up Gold and Sunbathing Animal into an equally raucous dance party. “Freebird II” is another personal direct address from Savage, this time to his mother, who’s struggled with drugs and homelessness; in the song, he recognizes what he’s inherited from her without becoming weighed down or beholden to it. Between the crowd noises and the group sing-along that erupts by song’s end, the sense of acceptance—of having given oneself over to all that we cannot control—is complete and total.
These songs often arrive midway or at the end of their respective albums, marking the conclusion of broader movements within them. Which underlines another one of the band’s strong suits: As skilled as Parquet Courts are at crafting individual songs, they’re just as adept at assembling larger works, of putting things in order and knowing just what is needed and when. It creates a pleasurable feeling of comprehensiveness that’s almost narrative in nature, these songs providing resolutions to the album’s climaxes. In them, incoherence is followed by coherence; what’s broken apart is reassembled.