By Skyler Romero
“Why am I searching for reason? / I’m in the chaos dimension / Reasons eclipsed by tension.” In one stanza, Parquet Courts guitarist and vocalist Adam Savage gets to the heart of the modern dilemmas at the core of the band’s newest album, “Wide Awake!” Marking the group’s sixth studio effort, “Wide Awake!” finds the Texas quartet bringing a bit of extra polish to their lo-fi sound with the help of producer Danger Mouse. While the edges of the music have been smoothed out, quite noticeably in some spots, the overall effect should remain pleasantly familiar to longtime fans.
This goes for the lyrics as well; already known as a band concerned with the absurdities and anxieties of modernity, Parquet Courts are arguably more direct here than ever before in their social criticism. The time since their previous album, 2016’s “Human Performance,” has certainly provided plenty of fodder for the Courts’ signature mixture of righteous indignation and mocking parody. If “Wide Awake!” has a thematic throughline distinct from its predecessors in the band’s catalog, it’s attempting to reconcile genuine discontent and anger at the state of the world with defensive irony and cynicism; the will to act versus the unshakeable notion that it wouldn’t do any good.
This general unease about the current state of things is felt most potently on the faster, punkier songs on the album. Parquet Courts have always modulated between rapid-fire, scrappy punk rock and more contemplative indie rock jams, but fans of the harder stuff will be thrilled with how much of the album is spent in that arena. Opening track, “Total Football,” plows forward with the relentless ferocity of classic punk icons like the Ramones or the Damned, ending with a hearty cry of, “fuck Tom Brady!” to really piss off the squares. Elsewhere, tracks like, “Almost Had to Start a Fight / In and Out of Patience,” and, “Normalization,” channel the legendary Minutemen, a major influence on Parquet Courts’ work, and that group’s penchant for fast, angular art-punk and shamelessly blunt lyrics. The former track, a two-parter, finds Savage contemplating when it becomes appropriate to react strongly to a provocation, while the latter expands on that idea, where Savage is, “Faced with a decision: / When do I call bullshit?”
While “Wide Awake!” continues the sonic and thematic threads of earlier Parquet Courts albums, the influence of new producer Danger Mouse can still be felt in some of the album’s more atypical sections. Even as their louder, faster tendencies maintain a strong presence, the band also finds a lot of opportunities to indulge in their affinity for funk, jazz, and folk rock, genres that Danger Mouse has had plenty of experience with throughout his career. “Before the Water Gets Too High,” a song explicitly about our collective apathy towards climate change, features bassist Sean Yeaton playing a smooth jazz riff, complimented by a sultry guitar lead and oozing electric organ, while Savage asks, “Which hand gets to turn the final page? / In whose throat belongs the swan song / Of crisis, warming, denial, change?” Elsewhere, “Death Will Bring Change” ponders mortality while exuding a 60’s-by-way-of-90’s vibe aided by a children’s choir and electronic noise that evokes Beck’s early days.
Easily the wildest stylistic departure on the album is the title track, a straight-up disco dance party complete with cowbells and whistles straight out of a Donna Summer song. It’s a jarring shift from the rest of the album, as well as the entirety of Parquet Courts’ output to date, and it’s a bit difficult to see it as anything other than a gag. Still, the lyrics retain a hint of the band’s usual concerns, extolling the virtues of general wokeness as the result of unbridled intellectual growth: “I’m wide awake / Mind so woke ’cause my brain never pushed the brakes / I’m wide awake / Eyes so open that my vision is as sharp as a blade.” In addition, the flirtation with more mainstream genre fare gives the band members the opportunity to show off flashier technique than the typical Parquet Courts song usually calls for.
The narrative of the rough-around-the-edges rock band that scores a nice budget and a famous producer for their big breakout is as old as time. Often, bands who reach that point end up emerging with something that barely resembles what fans appreciated about them in the first place. Luckily, with “Wide Awake!,” Parquet Courts has managed to get there while retaining the same grit, urgency, and humor that has always made them such a worthwhile listen over their career. Fans who may have only heard the title track and decided to tune out are advised to reconsider: “Wide Awake!” represents a step forward for the band, but on the whole it also finds them doing what they’ve always done best, possibly better than ever.