Wide Awake! is a noble experiment gone slightly wrong.
Parquet Courts is the model of consistency, much as they would probably want you to believe otherwise. Their success has been built on mastery of a specific style and sound and a refusal to bend too far away from that sound. For the most part, their albums flow into each other, not quite interchangeable but very much of the same piece. With Wide Awake!, however, the band seems to be attempting to recast themselves as something more groove-heavy and malleable than the sort of rigid rock they normally play. Try as they might, though, their experimental side results in more awkward failures than successes, and the band still sounds most comfortable doing what they’ve done before.
At their core, Parquet Courts is a rock band. They may occasionally play with the ferocity of the punks of yesteryear, and singer/guitarist A. Savage sings with the literate posturing of Colin Newman or PiL-era John Lydon, but the roots of what Parquet Courts does best are found in their attempts to marry pseudo-intellectual rambling with a sound that’s as indebted to classic rock and early art-rock as it is to punk and its offspring. Opener “Total Football” is a perfect example of this, with its quick time-signature shifts and Savage’s intense verbosity. They return to this well a number of times throughout Wide Awake!, and while it’s hard to call songs like “Normalization” and “NYC Observation” entirely unique, there’s no denying that the band performs these songs with gusto and aplomb. It’s in these moments where Parquet Courts most often feels like a dynamic band rather than some muddled proposition of reused ideas and concepts.
Still, one can’t fault the band for feeling like they’ve done this dance a bit too many times. However, Wide Awake! doesn’t so much rip up the rulebook as it does crib a couple of pages from a different text. The band flirts with funk and R&B throughout the album, arriving usually at a rendition of late ‘60s/early ‘70s Motown with a heavy emphasis on keyboards and pianos. One is tempted to chalk this up to the influence of producer Danger Mouse, who tries to steer the band away from the dingy lo-fi recording style of their early years into something more palatable to the mainstream. Yet, that would be doing a disservice to the band, who plays songs like “Before the Water Gets Too High” and “Tenderness” with the same passion as on their more rock-oriented material. Yet, this sort of heart-on-sleeve, blood-red R&B doesn’t pair at all with Savage’s deep, guttural punk howl or his arch lyrical viewpoint. A brief detour into airy lite-shoegaze (“Mardi Gras Beads”) ends up working better for the band, but it’s just one sweet deviation on an album of somewhat misguided ideas.
Ultimately, Wide Awake! is a noble experiment gone slightly wrong. It’s hard to argue that their collaboration with one of music’s high-end producers was a paean to the mainstream, seeing as the way the band conducts themselves is utterly anathema to mainstream music culture. Instead, Parquet Courts makes an honest effort to switch things up and explore new dimensions of their music. That they fail isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s an unfortunate reminder of the limits of what this band can do.