“I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag / with Latin written on it that says, / ‘It’s hard to give a shit these days.’ / Manhattan’s sinkin’ like a rock / into the filthy Hudson. / What a shock. / Someone wrote a book about it. / They said it was like ancient Rome.”
That lyric from “Romeo Had Juliet” is, maybe, my favorite lyric on Lou Reed’s classic 1989 album New York. I listened to that record incessantly throughout my college years, as I bounced among apartments in the East and West Village. When I listen to it today, I think about the fact that New York City appears to be in significantly better shape than it was in the 1980’s. The city had recently emerged from a nearly disastrous fiscal crisis; and, at least to my eyes, the gap between rich and poor was stark and on constant display.
Then I stop and think for a second. “Better shape,” what does it really mean? New York seems to be on solid financial footing. The garbage and graffiti are gone. The homeless are less… visible. Corporations have taken over and cleaned up Times Square. Does making everything look cleaner, adding a Disney Store, and papering over problems add up, unequivocally, to “better shape?” I’m not one to over-romanticize grit and grime as “character,” but I’m really not sure.
In the crossed-out notes to their debut LP, Light Up Gold, Parquet Courts’ A. Savage says he “can only hope that [this record] will one day be re-discovered beneath the charred remains of sports memorabilia and dusted off by occupiers of a hellscape yet to come…” He doesn’t think that New York City, in its current state, is what draws “the over-socialized victims of the 1990’s” from around the country to start bands. Instead, they come out of a “subconscious” drive to “return to America’s scandelous [sic] origin.” It doesn’t sound like he has any sense that New York is in particularly better shape than it’s ever been.
In that sense, Parquet Courts have something in common with circa 1989 Lou Reed. The New York via Texas band meld the sounds of Reed’s proto-punk, with punk, post-punk, krautrock, indie rock, and garage rock into a package that they use to criticize the modern materialism of the city — and by extension, the country — they obviously love.
“Master of My Craft” opens the album sounding like something from the Jim Carroll Band (“People die / I don’t care”), the song’s narrator bragging about high thread counts, commissions, and hourly rates. “Death to all false profits / Around here we praise a dollar you f*in’ hippie,” he says, closing by pointing out that “Socrates died in the f*in’ gutter!” The song moves right into single “Borrowed Time,” with its nostalgia for that time just before inspiration strikes.
“Careers In Combat” laments the lack of low-skilled jobs while pointing out that, “there are still careers in combat, my son” over an upbeat guitar riff. On the Pavement-like “N. Dakota,” Parquet Courts chronicle the observations of an “exiled Texan from a former Dutch trade encampment,” vacationing in North Dakota, who concludes, “serf population: too high to tally.”
Album standout “Stoned and Starvin’” is a five minute jam about the search for something to eat in Ridgewood, Queens. Album closer “Picture of Health” simply remembers a lost love as being in somewhat better shape than the narrator. “I fell in debt to / those country crooners / mourning lost love / like Spanish funerals.”
Despite its many influences, Light Up Gold is almost the definition of a punk album to me. Devotees of the genre, if there really even is a “punk” genre, may quibble that it’s too poppy to be truly punk. But punk isn’t a sound, really. Criticizing the current state of things, celebrating a life lived outside the norm, maybe getting a little emo — it’s all punk. And, to me, punk sounds like New York.
Light Up Gold is out now on Dull Tools.