Two years after their exceptionally-crafted debut, I’m somehow still in the honeymoon phase with Parquet Courts. For married couples, it’s the seven year itch, but for love affairs with albums, it’s typically around seven days; roughly a week of incessant, borderline psychotic listening habits, then I’m onto bigger and better—or at the very least, newer—prospects.
Not the case with Light Up Gold. Like a wink from the back of a moving cab, the record’s bright, brazen intensity was precisely the brand of clever, deliberate punk that not just I, myself, but also the masses, had been waiting for. Seemingly overnight, this sheepish gang of guitar-wielding wordsmiths—three-fourths of whom, famously, hail from Texas—became the quintessential “New York” band. Critics salivated. Festival fans swooned. Hell, even Fred Armisen jumped aboard the Parquet Courts bandwagon. From the grimy Brooklyn underground to the glossy pages of Rolling Stone in about the span of one year; it’s the kind of musical rags-to-riches story not often heard anymore. Too much too soon? Perhaps, but the band’s sprawling sophomore record weaves a far different tale.
When ferocious title track “Sunbathing Animal” arrived earlier this year baring razor-sharp teeth, it was easy to assume that the upcoming full-length would deliver more of the same thrilling, high-octane energy as Parquet Courts’ debut. While that’s true to some degree—there’s the aforementioned sonic beast, plus swagger-heavy rippers like “Bodies” and the bluesy, scratchy “Black and White”—Sunbathing Animal suggests a subdued, intensely mature approach. Thematically, the record is a map, with lyrics that paint sunset-tinted portraits of distance, travel, and enduring heartbreak. Musically, Sunbathing Animal is varied, colorful, and experimental in nature; as spacious and grand as the American landscape. It makes sense, considering the band spent the majority of 2013 on the road, touring the whole world and back again several times over: an exhausting, yet thoroughly inspired year.
In between the ever-steady rhythms provided by drummer Max Savage and bassist Sean Yeaton, Parquet Courts leader Andrew Savage digs truly deep here, taking the reigns on the majority of tracks and delving into some highly personal subject matter. “I’m roaming outside the signal,” he admits on “What Color is Blood,” slipping and sliding around pools of expanding self-doubt. Savage crafts an ambitious ode to heartache and regret with “Instant Disassembly,” the record’s magnum opus and some of his very best songwriting to date. Tragic and achingly real, it’s a song that makes the wound feel fresh, no matter how long your own heart has been healed.
Fittingly, there are various influences that abound throughout the record’s diverse tracks, but all that travel can certainly take its toll. There are faint echoes of that other quintessential New York quartet, Television, from the background vocal coos of “Dear Ramona” to the equal penchant that Savage and co-conspirator Austin Brown share for dueling, driving guitars. An endless string of friends and tour mates have also left their marks; the presence of Tyvek is felt in the garage-punk bounce of “Duckin and Dodgin”, there’s a clear nod to Milk Music in the instrumental experimentation of “Up All Night,” and Mazes hidden among the hazy psychedelia of “Raw Milk”. Supremely skilled technicians at their core, Parquet Courts can easily ape a wide variety of sounds, but they’re still struggling to define exactly which one to claim as their own.
Sunbathing Animal takes the youth-addled immediacy of Light Up Gold and reduces it to a slow, careful simmer. A little bit creaky and still rather insecure, album closer “Into the Garden” leaves plenty of room for interpretation. “You’re not the same old fool you once took yourself for,” Savage realizes on a sleepless night, but time continues to pass, and there’s too much path ahead that remains unknown. As with all great adventures, there’s a beginning and an end; in the case of Parquet Courts, we’re still somewhere in the middle of the journey.