“You should see the wall of ambivalence I’m building!” sang Austin Brown on his band’s 2013 stoned ‘n’ starving slacker-rock breakthrough Light Up Gold. The band sure don’t sound ambivalent now. “Allow me to ponder the role I play/In this pornographic spectacle of black death!” co-leader Andrew Savage hollers on “Violence,” a standout on his band’s fifth LP that conjures both the Fall and Fear Of Music-era Talking Heads, an epic rant about normalized barbarity that spins into a panic attack of tangential nightmares, while a pitch-shifted Vincent Price-sounding-motherfucker cackles menacingly in the background.
Indeed, Wide Awake! is the sort of reality-reckoning many of us have been having on a daily basis lately. In place of the usual Parquet Courts concerns – oblique self-analysis, post-graduate existential ennui, meta-rock references, girl problems – are big-picture anxieties and flabbergasted outrage. “Before the Water Gets Too High” questions the pointlessness of craven money-making and earnest protest both in the face of looming climate-change apocalypse. “Total Football” calls out cultural obliviousness (“Have your hurt Caucasian feelings left you so distraught?”) in a post-Kaepernick call-to-action that concludes “Fuck Tom Brady.” Yet they haven’t lost their deadpan wit, offsetting what might come off as shrill or didactic; see “Death Will Bring Change,” which enlists a rag-tag choir of 12-year-olds to drive home the title conceit – in their mouths, a quietly hopeful threat to the powers that be.
With light-touch production by Danger Mouse, this is also the funkiest and sweetest Parquet Courts set yet, trading off some of their trademark guitar fireworks for danceable jams. The title track is Eighties Mudd Club boogie-in-the-wreckage punk-funk, complete with cowbells and referee whistles. And the Seventies AM-radio pop strut of “Tenderness” extends a hand to the nihilists, shaking its moneymaker and beckoning them to join the conscious revolution: “You wanna live outside the groove, then fine/But it’s there like a flower, blooming in your ears.”