Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage knows the risks of writing songs with political themes. But that didn’t deter him as he dove into sessions for what would become one of the year’s best albums, Wide Awake!.
The opening song, Total Football, alludes to a style of European soccer that foregrounds the value of teamwork over individual stars. It’s also something of a blue-collar manifesto that fires verbal volleys over a furious bass line, right up until the punch-line, an explicit diss of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
“I was really worried when we played (the song) in Boston,” Savage says. “But people were into it. It’s not a line about him so much as what he represents, this idea of American individuality verses the idea of the collective, the idea of working together. I have no personal issues with Tom myself.”
The guitarist was aware that not everyone would take that idea away from the song, at least initially. “I thought the (Beatles) song Revolution was about revolution when I first heard it,” he says. “There are lots of songs I didn’t get the first time. That’s not always how it works. Sometimes it can take years to become clear. But that’s OK. It’s more important that you’re coming from a place of genuine conviction.”
For Savage and his bandmates – guitarist Austin Brown, drummer Max Savage and bassist Sean Yeaton – the notion of taking on thorny subjects with a mixture of nuance and passion was deeply ingrained as they grew up with punk and post-punk. After focusing on side projects in 2017, the band came together later in the year with songs that flashed a sharper edge than the quartet’s more introspective 2016 album, Human Performance.
As the Wake Up! sessions began, the band members “were all thinking about expressing discontent in a nonviolent way, to make something that was both critical and constructive”, Savage says. “You don’t want to come off Pollyanna-ish or sanctimonious” when writing topical songs. “But you can’t worry how people will take it. I think about bands I grew up listening to – Crass, the Dead Kennedys – that have really explicit, political ideology in their lyrics, and they never came off as preachy. To me, it came off as urgent, honest.”
The band had the songs ready to go when Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton offered to produce. Burton’s resume (Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley) made the band suspicious of how much he wanted to shape the album, but they hit it off personally and their new collaborator ended up playing an unassuming but valuable role.
“My expectations, which made me wary about working with any producer, were at worse that he’d want to do things his way, but he was definitely coming into our process,” Savage says.
“He was willing to work with what we were already doing instead of making us bend to what he wanted. He encouraged us to push songs further, write more parts, like add two more bass lines for Violence so we could have a three-part song.”
Freebird II, in many ways the album’s emotional centrepiece, provided another example of Burton’s light touch. He suggested that the song’s key line become a coda, an anthemic punctuation point rather than a refrain. The song obliquely describes Savage’s difficult childhood and his mother’s personal struggles with drugs. Yet the song finds some empathy and redemption: “I feel free like you promised I’d be,” he and his bandmates sing.
“The idea was to turn that bitterness into empathy and not let your past define you, to liberate yourself from a chaotic past,” he says. It also explains why the album, though at times bleak in its outlook, often feels uplifting, particularly with the band’s renewed emphasis on punk-funk rhythms and high-energy guitars. Amid the boisterous arrangements, there are moments of hope. Tenderness closes the album with a modest plea at a time when we feel “outdone by nihilism”.
“We didn’t want to be pessimistic because that’s too easy to pull off, that vague sort of existential anxiety,” Savage says. “I wanted to be more site specific to the when and where of making this record, and I didn’t want to make someone feel worse after listening to it. I wanted to write lyrics that people could hang onto.” – Tribune News Service