The lush, melancholy world of Monk Parker has a thousand indirect referents, touchstones hidden in the cinema (Lynch, Wong Kar Wei), the library (Transtromer, McCarthy, Bruno Schulz) and the museum (Saul Leiter, George Shiras, Anselm Keifer). It is located diffusely, in the dark, hidden places of America, from the empty midday honky-tonks of Austin to the ghost-crowded highways of the foggy northern forests. Within his own field music – his antecedents comprise a half-forgotten, mournful legion...having studied musicology at Columbia (as well as history at NYU and poetry at Bennington) his source material ranges across centuries and continents.
Parker came to the practice of music late, and after briefly forming and dismantling two bands in the early aughts (The Low Lows, Parker & Lily) his debut solo album arrived in 2016, coinciding with his 40th birthday. That album was the result of a sudden and debilitating - though ultimately temporary - illness that ended his years in New York City and took him back to the family farm outside Austin. There, over three years of recuperation, hundreds of hours of music was recorded, mostly in an unused welding shed by the banks of the Blanco River. Involving over 30 musicians (including friends from Okkervil River, The Polyphonic Spree, Heavy Trash, and Swans), the sessions revolved around a slew of vibraphones and vintage organs, steel guitars, a raft of cinematic strings and an intricately orchestrated brass section that manages to evoke both stax/volt-style balladry and Neutral Milk cacophony.
Now Parker returns with his sophomore effort Crown of Sparrows. Drawn mostly from the same huge batch of sickbed recordings, the new album is both majestic and feral, it's tension hidden beneath a scratched-surface warmth, a woozy country narcosis, with layers of feedback trembling just at the edge of earshot. It's a dense, funereal sound evocative of Townes Van Zandt at his least folksy and most heroin-saturated. Stately, off-kilter dreamlike waltzes a la Richard Hawley or M. Ward build to explosive, gospel-tinged climaxes, and a woozy country narcosis kin to early My Morning Jacket or Phosphorescent alternates with feedback drones and buried noise melodies.
The lyrics are stark though not bleak, and exalt small, everyday things with the simple focus of those who must leave those things behind. Parker's distinctive singing voice, typically moving in slow-motion, often at half-speed to the band, recites it's confessionals in a concentrated, reverberative, obliquely tragic prose. The title track immobilizes a story of perfect, fleeting happiness, preserving it in amber to emphasize it's otherwise-ephemeral nature. Album closer, "Drowned Men," incongruously speaks of night life and romance from a position beyond anxiety, in the peaceful cadences of the already-dead. Throughout, the songs illuminate as if from a distance the desperate pleasures of the beautiful people. They cast a stoic, loving eye on our current end-of-the-world-as-carnival. They are, in the end, happy to be sad.