PARQUET COURTS – Monastic Living (Rough Trade ’15): Given my proclivity to insta-rate anything they release as A Minus or better (save for that pesky live album that doesn’t count), I’m obviously not to be trusted. So no, I wouldn’t actually recommend this album to anyone not as big a fan of this punk quartet as I am; Metal Machine Music mentions aside, it can be grating even to the staunchest devotee and infuriating to the uninitiated. Nevertheless, the album’s value for those able to stomach its relentlessness is in its function of bridging the hellish landscape painted in Content Nausea, their best album, and the new Human Performance, which features their cleanest production sound to date and existential anxieties of a different order, namely, uh, Human Emotion. But don’t hold your breath if you think I can convince you this album isn’t junk; there’s a 99% chance I’m overthinking this.
It’s no surprise, then, that an almost entirely instrumental album without any actual songs holds a 55 at review aggregate Metacritic. Most reviewers see it as a kind of throwaway—a sort of jokey stopgap EP that’s the much poorer cousin of Tally All the Things That You Broke, which had real songs. Of past albums—Content Nausea in particular—Jazz Monroe of Pitchfork says the band’s “sizzling one-liners felt like a bulwark against capitalist dread,” part of a “battle between righteousness and resignation,” (though I’d argue that Parquet Courts have already conceded capitalism has won—it’s not so much that they’re anti-capitalist as they are astute observers inside an absurd and ubiquitous system) and that here they sound like that resignation has won. Like everyone else, she doesn’t care for Monastic Living. And I get why she doesn’t like it. As she says, the album “has little textural detail; the music is not immersive, much less transcendent.” It “feels indifferent. Yet it’s presented with a straight face.” And as much as I hate any art medium that pulls this kind of trick, the truth of the matter is that that’s the point. This isn’t so much mimesis of the anti-human tedium and noise vomit of everyday life as it is distillation of that din into its closest approximate rhythm. It’s an album that must be consumed in context with their other work, which gives me the advantage of reviewing it now months after release and with Human Performance in mind.
What gets Parquet Courts into trouble, I think, and why so many pop music scribes don’t quite get them, I think, is because they and you and me are in part the targets or Parquet Courts’ ire, because what others take for wit and irony I interpret as sincerity. They’re not Dead Kennedys. Instead of titles like “Kill the Poor,” which simultaneously exaggerates and rips bourgeois stances, vents populist outrage, and flips the bird at authority, Parquet Courts opt for almost criminally serious ones like “Alms for the Poor,” “Elegy of Colonial Suffering,” and “Poverty and Obedience.” They can be a clever band, yes, but they’re not winking. Titles like that are meant earnestly. As far as a guy like Andrew Savage is concerned, it’s too much winking that helped get us here in the first place. Irony might work as a means to illuminate the contradictions inherent in our way of life, but it’s not a weapon against them.
And so Monastic Living is a kind of “fuck you” to, well, us. It’s a work of art turned into consumer product that’s incredibly difficult to consume, and the dismissiveness so many critics have is in part intended. If Content Nausea is a portrait of the anxiety and paranoia Parquet Courts are witness to and Human Performance the human light that exists despite the conditions under which so many of us must grind, Monastic Living is the raw, real-time, on-the-street energy from which those albums draw and, through crafting, offer articulate critiques. So it’s good that this music is hard to listen to, or unbearable for so many; if it weren’t, I’d be a lot more worried about what that said about us as human beings if the scratch and skraw of Monastic Living were widely viewed as pleasurable. Thankfully it’s still hard to listen to purposely irritating music that without words tells you your existence is kinda pointless bullshit. A MINUS