Whether through their five records or front man Andrew Savage’s foray as a solo artist, Parquet Courts have covered pretty much every ground within the indie-rock spectrum. Their sixth album, Wide Awake!, however, sees the Brooklyn quartet wade through new territory thanks to the deft guidance of Brian Burton – a.k.a. Danger Mouse. There is still plenty of garage-rock and punk tones, but there are also more daring and exciting elements. The result is an LP that is among the year’s most outrageous and brilliant. It is also among the year’s most political efforts, which also reveals another side to co-songwriters Savage and Austin Brown.
At first, Wide Awake! seems like another Parquet Courts’ record. Grizzled opener “Total Football” beckons to their garage-rock days as heard on Sunbathing Animal. It’s a gnarly, assertive, and a tour-de-force. Brown’s guitar wails like J. Mascis, and bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage provide some groovy, punk-ish rhythms. Savage’s voice, meanwhile, rages of a man frustrated with how the US has evolved. Using the great American game of football is a great analogy to describe the ongoing grind of the country’s blue-collared workers and the ongoing battle between the bourgeoise and the proletariat.
“Almost Had to Star a Fight/In and Out of Patience” is right of the canons of ’60s Brit rock, as the quartet channel their inner Rolling Stones. The track isn’t all about imitation, as Parquet Courts infuse their trademark oft-kilter, rambunctious arrangements. The chaotic approach perfectly complements Savage’s storytelling, who narrates a trip through right-wing America and an impending conflict. It’s a song about fighting and surviving the craziness or, as Savage says, “an unshakeable nightmare”. A similar message echoes within the nervous energy of “NYC Observation”, which might be the most “Parquet Courts” on the album. A short, boisterous number, the band describe the poverty that has inflicted the place they call home.
Hallmarks of ’70s rock bellow on “Freebird II”. Despite channeling the same era of the original, musically the song sounds more optimistic, and Savage’s lyrics mirror the feeling. About overcoming the obstacles set before you, including a dysfunctional family, the entire band holler, “I feel free like you promised I’d be.” The same decade reigns on closer “Tenderness”, which sounds more like an Okkervil River track or something out of the band’s previous LP, Human Performance. It’s fun, a little funky, and features some of the band’s best lyrics. On the track, Savage and Brown tackle the impact capitalism has had on the environment.
Speaking of funky, Burton’s prints are most obvious on the songs that sees Parquet Courts infuse new genres. Front and center is the album’s highlight, “Violence”. It’s a fiery, funk-punk number that is like an Algiers song, but the band is a lot more restrained and even funkier. Yeaton’s bass line stands out among the great orchestration, and Savage screams how violence has become a part of daily life. He, however, isn’t without blame:
“Allow me to ponder the role I play
In this pornographic spectacle of black death
At once a solution and a problem.”
The slow groove of “Before the Water Gets Too High” is a surprisingly contagious number. As the low hum of the omnichord streams across the song, Savage is at his biting best, and no one is immune to his words. He targets both the elite (“What’s it worth all the money we made / Floating idly in a newborn lake?) and protestors (“If the clock strikes midnight / Then what becomes of our demonstrations?”), questioning whether change can really be made before it’s too late. While on “Death Will Bring Change”, Parquet Courts share an unexpected orchestral-pop track complete with a children’s choir. It’s also the most intimate and personal track on the album, as Brown assumes lead vocals and speaks about how the passing on his younger sister, who died tragically in a school bus accident, affected him.
Psych-funk vibes boom on “Normalization”, which sees the band question what is normal and acceptable. But with the growing apathy of our society, a new development has occurred – the “immunization of human sympathy“. Not all, however, have succumbed to the messages and advertisements that flood social media, as revealed on the upbeat, Latin-infused “punk” tune, “Wide Awake”. It’s a joyous fare that offers much-needed hope and optimism in these dark days. A song that, like the whole album, surprises with every note and lyric.
But then again, Parquet Courts have never been ones to stay stagnant. They’ve been predictably unpredictable, finding new ways to tell stories about the human condition and the changing world around us. It’s just this time around they have enlisted one of the world’s leading producers, given us songs to rock out and dance to, and written an album that is extremely timely and socially and politically relevant. An album that will be relevant for years to come and likely remembered as among the year’s very best. Wide Awake! is definitely Parquet Courts’ very best, which is saying an awful lot.
The band is comprised of Andrew Savage (lead vocals/guitar), Austin Brown (guitar), Sean Yeaton (bass), and Andrew’s brother Max Savage (drums).
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