By 2021, the formula of the “quarantine album” had been written, perfected, and gradually overdone. The production was more stripped down, artists using whatever resources within their immediate vicinity to bang or strum; the lyrics were introspective, when most were locked down with only their thoughts for an indefinite amount of time; and the videos were DIY, the singer belting directly into a webcam, bedroom in the background, interspersed with home videos from fans doing the very same thing. It was a humbling time, a time where no matter the socioeconomic status, we all felt somewhat connected through a shared disconnect.
Although the relatability of the quarantine album resonated with most at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, as time went on, something just didn’t quite feel equitable anymore. The lockdowns turned into weeks and months and not only were wealthy artists still able to successfully profit in an unprofitable time for most, but their quarantines didn’t feel quite as dire. For a moment, the economic gap was invisible, but really it was always there. We were just too caught up in the shared experience of expressing these frustrations to realize we weren’t the ones with a voice or a platform.
The National Parks’ most recent album A Mix for the End of the World pt.1, however, is an example of an album being released mid-pandemic without the feeling of nothing to lose. The monomania of the locked down everyman packed into eight songs of a first act, appropriately released without the promise of anything else to come. Although making quality folk-influenced indie pop for the better part of the last decade, the Provo- based quartet stares at the ruins of a new world and asks: when all of the clout-aggregating fanfare, national park brand deals, full band orchestration, touring, and the very way we interact as a society suddenly disappears, what are we left with? The new album attempts to wrestle with that question as it dances into our ears with a ghostly unison of voices, floating above an echoic synth line so gentle, it could be a lullaby. At the end of the world, they sing, I picture me and you livin’ in a small town just drivin’ around with the music up loud.
The rest of the album explores this idea with a similar tenor. The band’s signature rollicking style of bouncy guitars, swells of strings, occasional brass, and soaring choruses designed for audience participation at least since their 2015 sophomore effort Until I Live are almost nonexistent on this record. And although it may feel like a lonelier set up, every sound arranged in these eight songs feels purposeful, plucked from real experience and organized into an emotional mosaic; the fluttering intro to “UFO,” the intermittent vocals dipped in vocoder in “live til we die,” the siren dissolving into static in the aforementioned first track. I know I’m not the only one who misses the explosive anthems in their discography like “Coração,” “Lights in the City,” or “As We Ran,” but sonically, A Mix for the End of the World pt. 1 wouldn’t benefit from a full-blown orchestra or a choir of voices just to have them. This isn’t music made for an arena but for a quiet drive with your girl sleeping in the passenger seat as the arena burns to the ground in the rearview mirror.
From my point of view, there are only two things you can do if the armageddon is truly descending upon you. You can either (1) warn others, often futilely, to change or stop the inevitable from coming, or you can (2) embrace the end, homing in on the things that matter while jettisoning the things that will waste the precious minutes you have left. The National Parks have unequivocally settled upon the latter.
I think we’re living on a fault line, but I don’t wanna wait and see, starts the album’s best song “Headlights.” So instead of watching the ground give way tonight just come with me. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the lead singer and songwriter Brady Parks, among every other human, longs to reach out to the one he loves, pull her closer than 6 feet, and escape to a pastoral setting. The album, though named for the day of reckoning, is actually more focused on the relationships between individuals, referencing the crumbling society around them only as footnotes and echoing another contemporary hit in same vein by JP Saxe and Julia Michaels: If the world was ending, you’d come over, right? In fact, the only time that Parks deviates from this fixed mindset is in the melancholic deepcut “Airplane” where he reflects from his escape vehicle, looking down at the burning rubble of what he once called home, wondering if he could’ve done more while he was on the ground.
However, by the virtue of our second point, focusing on the personal things that matter to us need not come without sadness for the situation. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has had all too many casualties along the way that manifests premonitions of the end of the world. And so the album’s penultimate track “Continuum” bridges its bookending songs with a reprise of the poignant synths of “At the End,” this time with violin accompaniment as if scoring a tragic flashback sequence. The “Airplane” of What-ifs is rebranded as a freer “Summer Bird” that flies into the sunset, the National Parks never again to be separated from their loved ones. Wouldn’t that be nice? Just for one night, Parks cracks with emotion at the end of the chorus of “Headlights,” It’s like the world’s not falling apart.
Make sure to follow The National Parks on Instagram and listen to their song “Headlights” below.