In terms of unusual musical partnerships, few would think to pair Parquet Courts, this generation’s undisputed proto-punk kings, and Danger Mouse, a pop producer behind a single so notorious it was taken off sale to (uneffectively) prevent over-saturation. However, it’s in creative conflict that the New York quartet have historically thrived most effectively – take 2016’s excellent Human Performance which chose to back angry social commentary with charming country-rock and pair stoner-led stories with jarring and elegantly inelegant riffs.
When it comes down to new album Wide Awake!, said band and said producer make for a perhaps surprisingly snug fit, despite their different backgrounds. Matching their creative ingenuity with an earnest attention to detail, the group’s new album is a concentrated dose of thinking man’s punk – the driving conflict this time at war worldwide political anger and expressed in smart lyricism.
Take ‘Violence’, the album’s second track, a scathing attack on violence sewn with pithy lyrics, backed by sharp organ stabs and a rolling bassline which angrily pitch the track somewhere between The Stranglers and Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. Scornful lines are shouted from afar, always one vitriolic outburst from a lost voice, twisting dense themes into darkly comical beat poetry and scorched prose. Every line an aphorism, the track finds the band at their best both musically and lyrically, grounded in blistering anger: even lines which read as pitiful, such as the inimitable ‘sadness is my name because sadness is what I feel when the radio wakes me up with the words ‘suspected gunman’’, are delivered with such a rage that they’re heard as a war-cry. The track’s spiritual sequel ‘Normalisation’ is just as angry and experimental, blending break-beat drums with bitter assault.
On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Death Will Bring Change’ finds the band collaborating with a children’s choir for the morbid hook, in much the same way as Insecure Men recently corrupted naive innocence, playing over a Modern Lovers-esque ballad. Similarly charming is the closing track ‘Tenderness’ which finds the band falling into a Paul Simon groove over absurdist poetry. A rare and endearing reminder of the album’s human elements, chirpy upright piano dances over an equally playful bass as Austin Brown leads the group in a knees-up singalong. ‘Back to Earth’ is a space-dub epic, complete with a Gorillaz melodica hook, and is as bizarre as it sounds. Weirdly, the production and its place in the tracklist convince me that it’s the final piece of an intricate puzzle. It’s inspired and brave.
Even when the band creatively tread water, which is more often than on earlier albums, the production’s newly found focus casts new light on now well-established tropes. Opener ‘Total Football’, a predictably flighty track channelling well-cited band influences such as Minutemen, still remains arresting throughout, while killer single ‘Almost Had To Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience’ stitches together two songs to form a thematic Frankenstein’s monster in classic Courts style. The clarion production yields excellent results. Only occasionally does the album falter – ‘Mardi Gras Beads’ is a rehash too far that even outside clarity fails to save.
Despite occasional missteps, the group’s sixth album is an expansive odyssey through the fury-fuelled eyes of Parquet Courts. The polarising politics of its conception drive the band forward into new sonic textures while older sounds find an ally in Danger Mouse’s smart production. It’s elaborately well-crafted as a whole and yet enjoyably loose up close. Leaving pupils dilated in awe and ears pinned back in hunger, it seems fitting that on Wide Awake! Parquet Courts are proudly woke as fuck and sounding as alert as ever.
WIDE AWAKE! IS OUT FRIDAY (17/05) VIA ROUGH TRADE. PRE-ORDER HERE:
Lead photo: Ebru Yildiz