Album Review: Parquet Courts - Wide Awake!
Over the course of their output so far, you might think that Parquet Courts are just a bunch of jokers playing post-punk music; their first big song was about being ‘Stoned And Starving’, their third album was named after the lazy sunbeam-chasing feline, they’ve put out albums under their alter egos Parkay Quarts – I could go on. When it was announced that they would be working with Danger Mouse as producer on new album Wide Awake!, it was easy to jump to the conclusion that this would be their most upbeat and poppy album to date. Of course, anyone who has paid proper attention to Parquet Courts knows that they’re one of the most tightly-wound and politically outspoken bands currently working when they switch on that mode – and with the current climate being what it is, they would have been betraying themselves if they hadn't accessed their frustrations while writing and recording Wide Awake!.
If you weren’t aware of Parquet Courts’ political bent, then you will be left in no doubt when listening to the vexed and vicious Wide Awake! (itself named in reference to their alertness to and drive to change things). One glance at the wordy lyric sheet might make your eyes spin at the idea of them putting these lengthy thoughts into punk music, but the album comprises Parquet Courts’ most dynamic collection yet, which manages to bear the load of these declarations and redistribute them as infectious and invigorating rock songs.
The opening trio of Wide Awake! are the most bluntly political on the album, and set the record straight for what follows in their more poetic and fanciful songs. ‘Total Football’ introduces us with a jagged rock dagger, A. Savage’s words provoking action from those living in America to undermine it from the inside: “Only through those who stay awake can an institution be dismantled/ It is dishonest, nay, a sin to stand for any anthem that attempts to drown out the roar of oppression.” If that seems like a lot to take in, Parquet Courts provide the perfect foil with a revving, unwinding chorus that simply calls to action various professions – and its simplicity is undoubtedly punchy. ‘Violence’ addresses the spate of violent crime in America, but does it in extremely poetic terms: “Violence is the fruit of unreached understanding that flower from the lips of scoundrels/ It is a forest so dense and rooted in our past,” professes Savage. He then becomes self-referential in the biting second verse, rooting us unmistakably in reality: “Savage is my name because Savage is how I feel when the radio wakes me up with the words “suspected gunman.”” Once again these proclamations are punctuated by Parquet Courts’ potent post-punk groove, with the extra swagger from Danger Mouse’s production cutting through the tension with vamping keys and a chant-along chorus. The third in this opening trio is ‘Before The Water Gets Too High’, this time led by Austin Brown in a more laid back swagger, but when he tensely intones “glass barely bends before it cracks,” you know he’s making a clear allusion to his fraught patience with nationwide news of people living in tent villages and falling market rates.
For the rest of Wide Awake! Parquet Courts largely turn their attention back to themselves and their own struggles with the human condition – although of course the oppressive state of society still impinges on them. ‘Almost Had To Start A Fight/In And Out Of Patience’ takes us right into the mind of someone on the edge of snapping, mentally in a place where “reason is eclipsed by tension,” making him believe he’s “in the chaos dimension.” It’s never explicitly stated what’s winding him up, but maybe that’s the point: everyone’s finger is on the mental trigger right now. Thankfully Parquet Courts turn this into one of their most infectious songs in a while, especially in the unravelling second half of the two-song suite, where ascendant backing vocals bring some levity to Savage’s “unshakable nightmare.” We’re flown even further away from this negativity on the following track ‘Freebird II’, where Savage coasts atop classic rock organs with self-actualisation (“when I pass my reflection there isn’t a question of where the person in it came from”), building into a soaring and collective proclamation of “I feel free like you promised I’d be” – undoubtedly the most uplifting moment on the album. The title track is similarly cavalier, coupling infectious carnival rhythms with declarations of their political activeness: “I’m wide awake/ Mind so woke because my brain never pushes the breaks,” its simplicity and lightheartedness being the perfect vessel for their insistence that everyone switch themselves on to the current state of affairs.
Wide Awake! takes a deep dive into the depressed psyche for its final third, harking back to the topics that made Human Performance such a resonant listen. ‘Extinction’ finds us inhabiting a character whose life has gone so stale that the decision between steamed and fried dumplings is the biggest of his day, while he’s feeding his cat just to feel needed; but set to Parquet Courts’ aerodynamic and rambling rock, the apathy is turned to energy, even if the ultimate message is “lying to ourselves everyday becomes incredibly easy.” ‘Death Will Bring Change’ is a dreamily direct reverie on mortality and futility, Parquet Courts roping in a group of children to sing along to the loping chorus, adding an extra layer of beautiful morbidity. ‘Tenderness’ seems like it might finish the album on an upbeat number, with a jaunty piano line and bar-room rock, but Savage won’t go out on a high, instead using the opportunity to get out the last of his grievances, professing disgust at many modern proclivities from technology to tourism to consumerism, but when he sings “I can’t count how many times I’ve been undone by nihilism/ joined the march that splits an open heart into a schism,” you’re right there with him, marching along.
Although Parquet Courts are downcast and disgruntled on Wide Awake!, you get the feeling that they don’t want to be. There are still plenty of moments of frivolity tucked in between their poles of fury and deflation, from the proclamation of “fuck Tom Brady!” that ends ‘Total Football’, to the wistful post-party come down ‘Mardi Gras Beads’, to the cosmic funk of ‘Back To Earth’ (even if it does end up meditating on death). We’re ultimately left with the feeling that Parquet Courts are fighting their way through life on Wide Awake!; battling ignorance, standing up against inequality, staving off depression – and they want you to join them in their struggle. Their vocal frustrations make perfect fodder for their post-punk blasts, and in combination they add up to some of the most invigorating music currently being created, making Wide Awake! a valuable and vital call to arms.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 18th May 2018.