Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
Parquet Courts are one of this decade’s greatest bands. New York cool kids with Southern roots and impeccable taste, they’re punk without getting over-excited about being punk. Keen students of the School of Caustic Guitar Riffs founded by Wire and Gang of Four, they’re less standoffish than their obvious forebears, but nail the minimal, arty aesthetic, giving it just the right amount of modern spin and polish. Over the course of five albums they have, naturally, evolved, and Wide Awake! is an album of many firsts. Producer Danger Mouse opens up space for the band to diversify their styles and instrumentation, and these songs are more personal, political, and eclectic than ever before. Parquet Courts aren’t just wide awake, they’re woke.
As the lyric written on the front cover (“Q: Are you quite done now? / A: Not at all!”) suggests, Parquet Courts are imbued with purpose, and that purpose is revolution. The list of topics discussed on this album reads like a social activist’s twitter feed: racism, capitalism, white privilege, and liberation (‘Total Football’); gentrification and violence (‘Violence’); homelessness (‘NYC Observation’); how to deal with other people’s obnoxious views (‘Normalization’, ‘Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience’); and complacency about climate change (‘Before The Water Gets Too High’). Undoubtedly, the point of this album is to illuminate contemporary America’s flaws and encourage resistance to them. And it is very much a clarion call to those already on-board – if you don’t already agree with Parquet Courts’ politics, expect to be scoffed at rather than proselytised. But Parquet Courts succeed in doing more than merely setting sanctimony to music. They never lose sight of why these problems need to be resolved – which is not simply because they are bad, but because humanity can do so much better. They call for unity (‘Total Football’), tenderness (‘Tenderness’), and resistance through love – “Get love where you find it, it’s the only fist we have to fight with,” (‘Back to Earth’). Maybe this seems naïve, but the band demonstrate formidable intelligence. When they do fixate on the world’s flaws, it is not simply to solemnly catalogue how terrible things are, but to add to our understanding through thought-provoking interpretations and metaphors. And, perhaps most importantly, the serious subject matter is offset by energetic and varied music.
It begins somewhere familiar but unexpected. In sound, ‘Total Football’ is classic Parquet Courts, its punctuation-mark guitars and chanted chorus redeploying some key ingredients of their excellent debut Light Up Gold. But the topic appears alien – Total Football is an approach to football (soccer) pioneered by the Dutch in the ‘70s, wherein every outfield player is able to play in every position, swapping fluidly back and forth to confuse the opposition while ensuring the overall formation is maintained. Singer Andrew Savage (releasing his 7th album in 6 years) uses this as a metaphor in his own miniature riposte to Atlas Shrugged, to demonstrate that great things can be achieved by people working as collectives rather than as individuals pursuing selfish ends. He dives right into political issues surrounding another kind of football too, the NFL anthem protests, calling it “a sin to stand for any anthem that attempts to drown out the roar of oppression”. And Savage signs off with “and fuck Tom Brady!”, the NFL’s MAGA-hat wearing arch-individualist, and most famous quarterback.
There’s certainly a lot of wishful thinking on this track, and that’s aside from the subtle calls for revolution. For one, Total Football was largely deployed to exploit the insane talent of one individual, Johan Cruyff (though himself an ardent socialist), giving him free license to roam and wreak havoc throughout the pitch. And of course the aim of Total Football was to crush opposition teams rather than spread harmony throughout humanity. Nevertheless, it’s a neat and original metaphor for the virtues of collective action, and perfectly introduces Parquet Courts’ struggle to create something better.
‘Violence’, like many tracks here, has a hip-hop feel, which is perhaps an inevitable occurrence given Parquet Courts’ previously dabbling with hip-hop on tracks like ‘He’s Seeing Paths’ and ‘Captive of the Sun’, and that Danger Mouse is producing. Less expectedly, it has a rhythmic affinity for Kasabian’s ‘Club Foot’. Savage hurries through his lyrics because he has plenty to say; in particular, the line “It’s hard to get used to get used to violence” crystallises Savage’s incredulity that Americans are increasingly expected to view violence borne from toxic masculinity, racism, homophobia, and misogyny as inevitable features of modern life, and how dystopian it is that these events occur with such exhausting regularity that nowadays its more common to shrug and change channels rather than recoil in horror. But Savage’s most interesting act is to sow his own name into the lyrics – “Savage is my name because Savage is how I feel when the radio wakes me up with the words ‘suspected gunman’”. Situating himself in the song reminds us that what he’s singing about is not a fantasy – this is the world we live in.
The dystopian perspective doesn’t let up on ‘When The Water Gets Too High’, this time focussing on climate change, with images of “tent villages” and “rivers that did not exist yesterday”. Again Savage gives us an intriguing metaphor as a hook – “glass barely bends before it cracks”, a reminder to those who claim the evidence for impending climate catastrophe is flimsy that it can hardly get more compelling without descending upon us irreversibly. He laments the insidious influence of privilege, speculating nothing will be done “until the rich become refugees”. This is all a bit of a bummer, so the band give us an interesting hip-hop backdrop, with organ, claves, and a spotlight-stealing bassline line which is shadowed by a palm-muted guitar in the chorus, inviting you to gyrate to the syncopation as the room fills slowly with water. Sean Yeaton on the bass is the unsung hero of this album, equally happy carving out the edges of the classically punk tracks (‘Extinction,’, ‘NYC Observation’, ‘Normalisation’) as he is filling the space created by Danger Mouse’s excellent production with danceable grooves on the more hip-hop oriented tracks (‘Violence’, ‘Before The Water Gets Too High’, ‘Back To Earth’).
By now Parquet Courts have made you feel that the erasure of humanity through meteorological anarchy, while inconvenient, is probably justified. So other songwriter Austin Brown intervenes with ‘Mardi Gras Beads’, a calming love song that is quite unlike previous Parquet Courts material with its harmonies and dreaminess, but whose melodic contour is very similar to Pavement’s ‘Range Life’. Brown geekily codes his reluctance and eventual commitment to a relationship with song-writing metaphors – “I’m coming in late but I’ll never modulate us to the minor key”. Later, Savage provides his own emotionally-open indie track on ‘Freebird II’, a tribute to his mother and the dysfunctional childhood she provided him and brother Max Savage, the band’s drummer. Penultimate track, ‘Death Will Bring Change’ is also deeply personal, Brown reflecting on how his sister’s death in a car crash affected him as a teenager.
‘Almost Had to Start a Fight / In and Out of Patience’ is an instant Parquet Courts classic, with crunchy guitars, semi-shouted vocals, parsimonious drum fills and a mid-song transition that recalls the segue between the opening two tracks of Light Up Gold. The opening movement is underpinned by a pummelling rhythm synchronised across the whole band that compresses then releases tension. Savage agitatedly considers how to balance the pressure to stand up for what you believe in when you encounter ugly rhetoric, against the need not to feed the trolls. “When does something stop being a joke?” he wonders.
Of all the interesting musical diversions on this album, two tracks stand out. First there is ‘Wide Awake!’ itself, which goes fully, fully samba, replete with timbales, agogo bells, whistles, and octave-jumping heterophonic grooves from the guitar and bass. Why include such an upbeat track on an album as politically gritty as this? This is Parquet Courts saying that resistance is supposed to be liberating, not just a slog. ‘Back to Earth’’s message is about the power of love, ‘Total Football’ about the power of collectivism – the indulgence of ‘Wide Awake!’ expresses the excitement and joy of truly believing that something better can be achieved. And second there’s ‘Tenderness’, an experiment in funk by way of Primal Scream. Again the band are resisting negativity. The innocent piano lead is tender itself, as Savage casts his eye back to the industrial revolution, and forward to a future which is slower, gentler once again. Ultimately this is what Parquet Courts want, what ‘Wide Awake!’ is for – not to tear down the edifice of capitalism nihilistically, but to bring about a kinder, more humane world.