NOTHING REMINDS THE MIND OF POWER LIKE THE CHEAP ODOUR OF PLASTIC /
LEAKING FUMES, WE CRAVE, CONSUME: THE RUSH, IT FEELS FANTASTIC…
How do you write about the end of the world?
The sheer scale of climate change, the horror of it, makes it difficult to even think about. There are so many interlocking issues and problems that even identifying the causes and potential solutions feels like navigating an increasingly claustrophobic labyrinth.
To quote video creator Abigail Thorn, in character as Dr Odradek in the Philosophy Tube video Climate Grief:
“It’s very difficult being a climate scientist right now, because…
OK, fish: Fish are dying because of global warming, right? So commercial fishing industries are losing money. And if you run a fish business, one of the easiest ways to save money is to pay the fishermen less and make them work in dangerous conditions. Since all the fishing happens at sea it’s hard for anyone to check. But, if the crew tells anybody you’re going to have a lawsuit on your hands. So what do you do? You’ve got to hire undocumented migrants to go on the boats, who can’t complain and can’t unionise or they’ll be arrested and deported. Some of the conditions in the commercial fishing industry basically meet the definition of modern slavery. So, when it comes to fish, climate change, border controls and labour rights aren’t three separate issues: it’s one big problem.
…And I really don’t think we need a scientist. I think we need a priest.”
And that’s just fish.
I recently attended a talk by ecologist Tim Newbold on biodiversity and habitat loss, and was struck by so much of the information. For one, I had no idea that climate change has already directly caused the extinction of a mammal species. But more than that, it’s the tumbling house of cards nature of the changes we are exacting upon the planet. Climate change is causing a decline in survival rates for certain species. Habitat loss due to farming is also causing a decline in the same species. And climate change is also causing habitat loss. And the farming that the habitat loss is in aid of is causing more climate change too. And the species that aren’t declining? They’re species that typically carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans. The whole thing is falling apart. The centre cannot hold.
Parquet Courts’ sixth full-length LP Wide Awake is a kind of musical testament to the anxiety that the complexity of the situation facing us provokes. The sense of a deep seated ecological, personal, societal, political anxiety is inescapable throughout the record. On the brink of an extinction event, these are songs about living with the sword of Damocles hanging over your head.
Of course, the notion that adult responsibilities, our modern lives, and urban centres can induce stress is nothing new. In her essay collection Upstream, the poet Mary Oliver writes:
“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapour. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness […] May I stay forever in the stream.”
Escaping the pressures of modern life by plunging oneself into nature is hardly a new concept, either. It’s pratically an American tradition, as Oliver acknowledges by engaging with Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau – amongst others such as British Romantic poet William Wordsworth – in her essays. But what refuge can nature offer when the natural world is dying around us?
“Still, in my personal life I am often stricken with a wish to be beyond all that. I am burdened with anxiety. Anxiety for the lamb with his bitter future, anxiety for my own body, and, not least anxiety for my own soul. You can fool a lot of yourself but you can’t fool the soul. That worrier.”
Wide Awake doesn’t open with the worries of the soul, but it doesn’t take long to get there.
Track 7, Normalisation, in fact: “My thoughts they were replaced / I had the nerve to call it a soul”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The first three tracks of Wide Awake are what we need to focus on first.
The record opens with a brash, bombastic call to political arms in the form of Total Football, loudly declaring the need for bringing about societal change through the metaphor of football tactics (including the beautifully observed “strikers, sweepers”). For the uninitiated, Total Football was a style popularised by the Dutch national team and its star Johan Cruyff in the 1970s, in which every outfield player was able to take on the role of any other player, facing opponents as a single, adaptable unit rather than a group of individuals with strictly defined roles.
Applied to a society, Total Football would mean everyone having an equal stake, breaking down established class divisions. Other citizens covering for those who fall out of position, reacting quickly to changing situations for the good of the whole. “Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive”. It’s radical stuff.
And that’s the future the band envisions.
Because the present? Well… Violence is daily life.
Singer Andrew Savage launches into a stream of consciousness diatribe comprising prison TV shows, ATMs that recall colonialist horrors, and corporate newspeak. He sings:
“Savage is my name because savage is how I feel when the radio wakes me up with the words ‘suspected gunmen’ – my name is a warning for the acts you are about to witness which contain images that some viewers may find disturbing.” And later “What is an up-and-coming neighbourhood and where is it coming from?”
Having presented a vision for a better society, Parquet Courts deliver the reality of the current social situation and the sheer anxiety it invokes. And after this politically charged one-two punch comes the third track: Before the Water Gets Too High.
Addressing climate change directly for the first time on the record, the track explicitly links ecological disaster with capitalist profiteering: “Was it worth all the money we made?”, “Is it someone else’s job, until the rich are refugees?”, “Far above financial centres, cities sink like market rates,” and the refrain “Before the water gets too high, / Add up the bribes you take, / And know that time cannot be bought, / By the profits that you make.”
I would argue that these three opening songs are the key to unlocking the uneasy anxiety of the music that follows. It flows like a chart in reverse:
Solution (Total Football) < Problem (Violence) < Cause (Before the Water Gets Too High).
Insomnia, fight or flight responses, commuter frustration, toxic masculinity, affectation, existential doubt: all of the pressures of modern life that follow can be traced back to these core problems; to the absurdity of a society that prioritises economic growth over the continued existence of our species.
Viewed through this lens, even the most personal tracks on the album fit into this theme. Although ostensibly a denouncement of a negligent, drug-addicted parent, could Freebird II be about climate change, too? Perhaps I’m reading too much into something that isn’t there, but I imagine there are a lot of people of Greta Thunberg’s age who could relate to a feeling of resentment for an older generation.
A generation that was supposed to take care of you but instead dedicated themselves to consuming dangerous chemicals; an addiction which they have passed on to you, too.
A pressure that weighs on your shoulders like one of Mary Oliver’s heavy coats.
A coat that you did not ask for.
A coat like the one worn by Savage in the video for Freebird II.
A coat like the one he discards at the start of the second verse (around 1:25 below). And then sings: “Free, I feel free, like you promised I’d be.”
But some coats are not so easily thrown off.
There are no easy answers here. Our social and political system is killing our planet, but dismantling it is such a complicated process, and one which will be fought tooth and nail by denialists with a financial stake in the status quo.
Yet the album’s closer, Tenderness, offers up a good place to start: kindness.
The radical idea that if we built a society around kindness rather than profit, we might be better placed to fight the issues we face.
Anxiety punk to soothe your climate grief in the extinction event era.