Parquet Courts ‘Wide Awake’ – Reveiw

7 Jun

On the title track of Parquet Courts best album, 2014’s ‘Sunbathing animal’, Andrew Savage told us that ‘most freedom is deceiving, if such a thing exists’. More broadly speaking, that album expanded on the theme of captivity/freedom; what it means exactly to be free in 21st century America, whether it’s attainable and if it’s even desirable. Its a topic that Parquet Courts return to on new album centrepiece ‘Freebird II’, a song about Andrew’s relationship with his substance dependent mother. It’s about finding ways to break free from old habits and bad influences, finding healthy distance from your past, and the consequences of such freedom. ‘Free, I feel free like you promised I’d be’. Once again the theme seeps across multiple tracks and on ‘Wide Awake’ more generally Parquet Courts personify this idea by creating their most daring and ambitious album to date, the one least tied to expectation and convention. It finds joy in freedom, and more specifically, joy in groove.

‘Wide Awake’ is an album that comments upon, and occasionally critiques, what it means to be politically engaged, and active, in 2018. Savage’s almost stream of consciousness poetry, muddled up with ironic sloganeering, is both captivating and exhausting. ‘Swapping parts and roles is not acting but emancipation from expectation. Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exhaustive’ is a typical lyric. But behind the stylistic intensity there is precise analysis. Take their take on the National anthem controversy that has swept through the NFL: ‘it is dishonest, nay a sin, to stand for any anthem that attempts to drown out the roar of oppression’. This is not the vague unhappiness we’ve come to expect from pop political commentary (see the recent Janaele Monae album) – this is specific, diagnostic and raging. It also presents an idealistic solution, namely, we are stronger when we work together. This is essentially punk music – disgusted, individualistic, disenchanted with the mainstream – that in the moment is emboldened by the idea of the collective. Of communities rising together. As furious as they sound, ironically, they sound even more excited by possibilities.

For a band that is more than ever concerned with injustice and bloodshed, it feels appropriate that they are incorporating the influence of more and more diverse, and somewhat marginalised, genres in to their sound. Still punk in attitude but not necessarily style. ‘Violence’ has a baseline worthy of Funkadelic, ‘Normalisation’ features a breakbeat, ‘Tenderness’ has a piano vamp, ‘Wide Awake’ is out and out funk pop. It’s Parquet Courts most diverse collection of songs to date, and easily their most euphoric.

The ambition can be occasionally cloying. In ‘Violence’ the metaphors become so thick and tangled that it’s difficult to determine exactly what clarity Savage has on this particular topic. Perhaps, and it’s probable, that was the point. It’s easy enough to call out white privilege and examine your own complicity, it’s far harder to unpack the level of black on black violence that is currently tearing some American cities apart. Mixed metaphor after mixed metaphor leads to confusion, a confusion occasionally pricked by some of Savage’s brilliant one liners, e.g ‘Savage is my name because savage is how I feel when the radio wakes me up with the words suspected gunman’. The theme is boiled down to something far simpler in the chorus ‘violence is daily life. Violence happens every day’. The song embodies the confusion and frustration of this emotional overload.

This isn’t the only song that deals with that topic. ‘Almost Had to Start a Fight’ queries the intersection between patience and aggression, and the difficulty of keeping a cool head when the world is overheating. It’s about meltdown but also the salvation that is offered through music. And that’s a key point. ‘Wide Awake’ rarely sounds as fearful or agitated as the lyrics read. There is a shorthand between these four musicians that results in some of the most natural grooves and adventurous progressions we’ve yet heard from them. And though this is definitely Max Savage’s show, Austin Brown also contributes three songs – ‘Mardi Gras Beads’ ‘Back to Earth’ and ‘Death Will Bring Change’, the latter of which were written about his sister’s death in a car accident at the age of 17. Brown’s contributions generally feel more philosophical and optimistic, despite sounding more gloomy (Danger Mouse’ influence is felt most strongly on these songs) but they are still informed by the inevitable tragedy of life. If Brown is singing about wide reaching world issues, Brown uses his space to zoom in on the more intimate tragedies that knock you for six. Whatever issues you have, no matter the scope or intensity, Parquet Courts might just have it covered. And ‘Wide Awake’ provides a gloriously entertaining avenue for your righteous anger and sadness.

8/10

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