Parenthetical Girls’ 2008 release, Entanglements, earned the Portland quartet plenty of attention. But not all of that attention was positive. Many critics rejected the band’s third full-length as one undone by its own ambitions, and although those judgments may have been hasty, Entanglements’ detractors weren’t without fuel for the pyre. Entanglements is as grandiose as indie rock comes, full of thick yet lilting orchestral pop that swoops and swoons alongside a voice prone to acrobatic falsetto. It may seem overwhelming—but not even the disc’s intricate wordplay, cast of 22 players, and nods to art-pop legends Van Dyke Parks and Scott Walker are enough to obscure its greatness. Singer Zac Pennington spoke to Decider on the eve of his band’s latest tour, which will bring them to Spaceland on Wednesday.
Decider: Where did you learn to write the way you do?
Zac Pennington: You know, I haven’t studied English to any great degree, and I only stumbled onto journalism years ago to be more involved with music. Writing was less daunting than playing. Along the way I became obsessive about lyrics and the idea of communicating ideas in a limited framework, which is why I respond so well to pop music as a medium. I don’t want to make it sound like I have a preternatural gift, but there really wasn’t any formal trajectory.
D: You’ve spoken about Entanglements’ musical influences, but what were some of the lyrical inspirations?
ZP: Years ago I stumbled upon a book by Amir Aczel about the concept of quantum entanglement, which inspired a vague idea about using that notion as a metaphor for human interaction. The record sort of devolved from there. The band has an open-door policy when it comes to re-contextualizing other people’s ideas, and not closing ourselves off to direct plagiarism when needed. [Laughs.] There’s a lot of Leonard Cohen and a lot of Morrissey in most everything I write, almost embarrassingly so.
D: Entanglements’ lyric book is a pretty engaging read itself.
ZP: Of all the things we did to shoot ourselves in the foot with this album, I think the dumbest was not including the words with the promo. There’s so much going on sonically that it’s difficult to pick out what’s going on in the story. It’s perfectly valid not to put much stock in lyrics—because how often is it worth it?—but I feel like that hurt our reviews.
D: The narrative is navigable, but the gender of the characters is hard to pin down.
ZP: That’s one of those direct and unapologetic Morrissey rips—the idea of nullifying gender. He doesn’t pinpoint what exactly his interest is, and that saves him from being pinned down by sexuality. For Entanglements, I wanted to explore this narrative where the characters are equally loathsome regardless of their gender, in part to eradicate the romanticized roles of men and women in songs. Because of the age disparity you might make certain assumptions, but it’s written to be any combination of gender.
D: Was there an intentional disparity between tone of the lyrics and that of the music?
ZP: Yeah. You know, of all our influences, Scott Walker really did that the best, making these exceedingly grand pop songs and peppering them with the most bizarre and grotesque lyrics. It’s an interesting way to invade someone’s consciousness.
D: You’ve said that you’re a musical novice. How did you convey your ideas to your more experienced bandmates?
ZP: I have more of a curatorial hand in the music. I write the vocal melodies, but I’m not very good at song structure. Instead, I created this bulky library of sounds that I grabbed from other songs—like, “You know how this string chord sounds? That’s what this section should be like.”
D: And you recorded each contributing musician in his or her own home?
ZP: For the most part. People were nice enough to donate their time, so we adjusted the project to work to their schedules. It came together much more cohesively than any of us had expected. Many of the songs had 100 or more tracks. It’s almost unfathomable that, after all that work, the record is about 30 minutes long, but I like it—there’s no room for fat. A lot of the negative reviews said, “It’s just too much,” but I think that’s the best criticism we could get.