Parquet Courts were formed around the turn of the decade in Denton, Texas. They relocated to New York, their current home base, shortly after, bringing with them a dusty Americana-infused, noisy art punk sound that was exemplified on their 2012 breakthrough record Light Up Gold. It was an album which owed much to not only the wiry and angular art punk of Wire’s Pink Flag (1977) or the unhinged experimental rock and sour lyrical themes of The Velvet Underground, but also Neil Young’s ragged country folk, capped off with Beatnik and often abstract lyrics. Their last proper album to date, 2016’s Human Performance, was their most accessible yet, with a real tender and emotional undercurrent opening up in parts – further explored by the band’s vocalist and guitarist Andrew Savage on his debut solo album Thawing Dawn. And though it’s been over two years since Human Performance, there’s been no shortage of Parquet Courts material in the meantime, with the aforementioned solo album and Daniele Luppi collaboration Milano (2017), not to mention a bunch of remixes, some with guest rap verses, coming out last year.
The hard-working four piece are now ready to present their latest full-length to the world, Wide Awake! (stylised on the album cover as WIDE AWAAAAAKE!), and true to its title, it is their most urgent and optimistic record thus far. For the first time, they’ve brought on an outside producer in Danger Mouse – someone who may well need no introduction, given his extensive catalogue of high-profile production credits and collaborations. His input here certainly helps the band step out of their comfort zone with his sense of rhythm, with influences of dub and funk poking through. More generally, he helps the outfit sound refreshed, re-invigorated and direct as ever. Though this is their shortest album since Light Up Gold, it is an album with plenty to say. Parquet Courts have never been an overtly political band, but here they convey a message which goes beyond being merely political. It’s a social statement on all of us, ultimately reflecting on the importance of collectivism and being blunt with its rejection of nihilism, while exploring much of what makes our everyday lives increasingly chaotic – from the personal and mundane, to grander issues on a worldwide scale.
The first single to be lifted from the album was the typically punky two-for-one “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience”, which sets the scene with an angry, fighting energy. In the first part, Savage portrays himself as someone fighting desperately to feel something in the face of the increasingly numb and mundane, over a grinding punk instrumentation. It’s to the point where aggression and fighting seems like the only release, eventually responding with the resigned “why am I looking for reason? I’m in the chaos dimension.” The tempo picks up with the second part, as he rants about more mundane disturbances such as transport delays, as the circling harmonies put him in a state of euphoria, but always remaining disconnected from the outside world with “funky music playing in my ears.” Second single “Wide Awake” is a different story altogether. To say much about the song would defeat the purpose – it is simply a burst of energy, with a classic New York dance-punk groove and irresistibly catchy guitar hooks. It brings to mind the image of a businessman dancing through the streets of New York, in some ways perhaps a response to the anger and frustration found on the previous single, as well as elsewhere on the album.
The album kicks off in a familiar place, hitting the ground running with the propulsive Motorik groove of “Total Football”. It’s a song inspired by the team-oriented tactic employed by the Dutch football team in the 1974 World Cup, where the team is greater than the sum of its parts – here used to declare and emphasise the band’s mission statement. The song puts society at large on a football field, emphasising the message of collectivism without sacrificing autonomy. The song’s busy, focused groove keeps things grounded while Savage is given room to unhinge and rant, downright screaming the fiery third verse. On the following track “Violence”, the music calms down but Savage certainly does not. Over a dubby, mid-tempo funk-tinged groove, Savage, true to his name, unleashes a torrent of frustration and anger over increasingly common acts of violence, and a desensitised society becoming increasingly numb to them, not to mention efforts to undermine the resistance of the oppressed – even wielding his own name as a weapon. But his cries are only met with the apathetic chant of “violence is daily life,” a line that really speaks for itself, as a cartoonish villainous voice reinforces the way society at large has been numbed to this violence. To fully grasp all the lyrics would take several listens, however, the meaning is apparent from the very first – to quote any single line from the song would not do it justice. The huge contrast between the music and the vocal delivery runs the risk of ruining the song’s effect, but in actuality it creates a very curious and potent dissonance.
“Before the Water Gets Too High” brings it down a notch further; over an airy but mournful and pessimistic instrumentation, Savage sounds more measured but resigned, the message now more focused on environmental issues, the legacy we leave behind. The constant droning synth perhaps speaks to how no matter how we try to drown out and avoid these issues, they will always be there and putting them off could put us in peril. Lines such as “cities sink like market rates” speak to the capitalist obsession with money at the expense of other issues. After the heady topics of those first three songs, guitarist Austin Brown comes in with some reprieve in the form of “Mardi Gras Beads”. The dreamiest and gentlest song so far, it pulls back the focus to the personal. With a rainy instrumentation and a pleasant, dreamy descending chord progression in its verses, it is a pretty song and a much-needed reprieve, but in itself is perhaps the most lightweight song on the album and could well slip by barely noticed. Things ramp up again with the aforementioned single “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience” which ends with crowd applause, dipping us back into more gentle and tender territory of “Freebird II”. Tonally, this song is something like a continuation of “Human Performance” from the last record, with a sweet keyboard melody and bright chord progression. The song seems to be addressed to someone in particular, someone not seen for a while – in fact, it concerns Savage’s childhood economic uncertainty, referring to his mother, her struggles with drug addictions and incarceration but above all, not letting oneself be defined by the dysfunction one is faced with.
“Normalization” then drops back into paranoia. A punk nugget with tense and angular guitars, Savage again going into savage mode, this time railing against the increasing homogenisation of society, the notion of everything becoming the same, compartmentalised and being lulled into a false sense of autonomy and free will. From here, the album goes into its dreamiest and least characteristic song, perhaps the most unusual song Parquet Courts have made to date. Austin Brown’s “Back to Earth” floats in with some spacey pings, the dreamy and celestial atmosphere underscored by the airy choir, indeed giving it the effect of floating away from Earth, as the measured, shuffling rhythm and slick piano hold it down. Brown sings about someone stuck in the same mundane existence alluded to elsewhere on the record – “between poverty and health,” but suddenly being shifted or forced out of it by what seems to be a moment of infatuation or sudden epiphany, a recount of a person’s life, with death seemingly looming in the third verse, affirming the importance of love – “it’s the only fist we have to fight with.” The viola around the two-minute mark is sublimely, quietly melodramatic and may be the prettiest moment on the album. The transition from “Back to Earth” to “Wide Awake” is, again true to its name, akin to being jolted out of a daydream.
While “Wide Awake” was full of reckless abandon, bringing to mind images of a black suit New York businessman dancing through the streets, “NYC Observation” shifts the focus to the less fortunate inhabitants of the city. Barely a minute long, the tense and speedy punk nugget touches on the city’s ingrained poverty, the homeless – and their poor treatment at the hands of not only the city’s authorities, but the everyday people’s reactions and reluctance to do anything to help on an individual level. References are made to the deadly K2 addiction and the common complaint of homeless people only using the money for “booze,” responding with “we all need something to revolve on.”
“Extinction” is an almost equally brief pop punk tune with classically magnetic guitar riffs weaving in and out. It almost seems to be a more level take on the themes of “Normalization”, again touching on the mundane everyday from a more direct perspective. There is more hope here though, as some words of self-improvement shine through. In the penultimate spot, Brown comes in with his final song, “Death Will Bring Change”. A draggy and lightly dirgey number, backed by a children’s choir, it has something of a hymnal feel, concerning the death of Brown’s sister at age 16 in a car accident and the emotional impact it delivered to him and his family. Finally, the record’s conclusion, “Tenderness” starts off in the studio – an opening immediately reminiscent of Modest Mouse’s “The Good Times Are Killing Me”, giving off a sense of togetherness and warmth for the song ahead. The song makes for an altogether uplifting and optimistic end to the album, with a sunny chord progression and a jaunty piano melody over the top while Savage sings about how much the world has sped up and the importance of slowing down. Painting silence as an act of quiet rebellion, while reinforcing the album’s mission statement of togetherness and love, calling back to its opener, bluntly reaffirming their rejection of nihilism – “I can’t count how many times I’ve been outdone by nihilism”, ultimately reminding us that sometimes all we need is a little tenderness.
With Wide Awake!, Parquet Courts have made a record very much about our times, for our times. In this unavoidably turbulent social climate, Parquet Courts have managed to make one of the best such statements with an album that seeks to wake the listener up to the issues concerned within, but more importantly to uplift and encourage a sense of collectivism. It’s certainly not without acknowledging, in a big way, the many issues we face individually on a daily basis. But it’s a statement which urges us to stand up united, rather than giving in to nihilism or taking the easy way out. And if all of that sounds cheesy and cliché, rest assured that the band have avoided exactly that, delivering their message in a way that is urgent and with plenty of heart and conviction. With the input of Danger Mouse, they have been reinvigorated, finding a new energy and directness, but also depth to their music. Time will tell whether it can be considered their best, but Wide Awake! can certainly be said to be the group’s quintessential album thus far.