If a “soft boi” has made you a playlist in the past five years, there’s a distinct chance it featured at least one song from Brooklyn-based punk icons Parquet Courts – as the band has been a model of consistency since its 2013 debut LP Light Up Gold. Their previous release, 2018’s Wide Awake! was their most successful and widely acclaimed album to date; since the release, the band has entered a stride that feels both ubiquitous yet niche.
Parquet Courts’ last record felt like an urban sprawl, an ode to the high pace chaos and uncertainty of modern, urban life. In comparison, Sympathy for Life, the band’s latest LP, feels intentionally muted. The production and lyrics sometimes come off as cold and disorienting. Lyrically and sonically, it feels analytical in a way much of their previous work does, but more removed at times.
The percussion shines throughout this album, contributing to the high-pace energy of tracks such as the opener, which features lively guitar and similar percussion to older tracks such as “Wide Awake”. Beyond the percussion-driven musicality, the lyrics of lead vocalists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown shine throughout Sympathy for Life. Lyrics such as “Amazon fire, twenty percent off/ Global cost, vast species death/ Suggested for you” encapsulate pressures of daily modern life, further complimented by Savage’s resigned vocals and often-catchy bass lines. The lyrical ability of Parquet Courts is perhaps their most underrated quality, and this album proves no exception.
The album starts strong and fast with “Walking at a Downtown Pace,” reminiscent of the same sounds found on their last LP. This switches up on “Marathon of Anger,” closely resembling a more low-key version of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” Next, “Zoom Out,” is one of the more fun tracks on the album, with a funky guitar line, lively percussions, witty lyrics and an enjoyable vocal performance.
Parquet Courts is one of few bands routinely releasing songs with runtimes over four minutes. Throughout its discography, these ballads have traditionally been high points. The closing track, “Pulcinella,” has a run time of almost seven minutes. On it, Savage croons, “I drag a chain of faces and names/ Some I’ve cut off, some were lost,” over an instrumental that pulls back, ending the record with a long, pronounced sigh. Heartbreak and reflections on the digital world are the themes of the track, as well as much of the album, with Savage’s monotone matching the cold, synthetic observations of digital life.
Sympathy for Life is the brisk walk to the sprint that was Wide Awake! and has some of the most David Byrne-friendly production of their catalogue. This is a fun direction, but perhaps less compelling than the sounds of the band’s past — it makes one miss hearing Savage yell insightful lyrics like a coked-up slam poet who thinks you’re too stiff to be at his party.
There are tastes of it, such as on “Homo Sapien,” but it feels more muted overall. Despite this, the album thrives in its different directions. With the exception of “Marathon of Anger,” the Talking Heads influence feels far from imitation and more like an updated version suited to the talents of the band. “Application/Apparatus” is perhaps the most successful swing at this, filled with witty lyrics and ending with some signature Parquet Courts vocals.
The outcome is an album that feels less urgent, and more of a headphones-on affair than the group’s previous works. Unsurprisingly, it was mostly recorded prior to the pandemic, and doesn’t feel like work the band would have produced had they written it during quarantine. Sympathy for Life is filled with smart, melancholic reflection but is missing the band’s signature ability to provoke and connect with emotions of impatience and frustration.
The album lacks a song that slaps you hard on the ear such as “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience,” or “Content Nausea,” but the finished product is more subtle and demands more of its listener than past work. Sympathy for Life is not the first, or even the second Parquet Courts album you’d pull from for a playlist, but it’s a very solid addition to the band’s discography nonetheless.