BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, Zac Pennington has spent much of his adult life being a dick. But recently he's given that up, along with soda.
"I used to think that if people didn't like what I was doing, it was their fault," explains Pennington, the man behind the four-piece Parenthetical Girls (and the Mercury's former music editor). "But now I realize that it's my fault, because I haven't been doing a good enough job communicating."
Around 2008, just after the release of the band's third album, Entanglements, Pennington got frustrated with singing into a vacuum. The band frayed and members left. He envisioned the next album, Privilege, as a way to invite people in—and to make amends.
Releasing an album over the course of two years in five limited-edition vinyl EPs numbered in the band members' blood might not have been the most intuitive way to attract new listeners. But for Pennington and his primary collaborator, Jherek Bischoff, it was the best way to write songs that stand on their own.
"I wanted to make something that opened the door to people who wouldn't be so open to the [Parenthetical Girls'] aesthetic," he says. "I didn't want to make big hits, but I wanted to intentionally communicate in a way we haven't before."
Privilege will be complete on September 11, when Portrait of a Reputation, the fifth and final EP, is released the day before a no-holds-barred Time-Based Art Festival show in its honor. The entire album will also be available on iTunes then, for those without access to turntables or the first few EPs, which are now sold out.
"People bemoan the death of the album and, while I had a strong relationship with albums growing up, I don't listen to albums for their full duration nearly as often as I used to do," Pennington says. "I can't expect an audience to do what I'm not willing to do."
Pennington hasn't yet listened to Privilege all the way through. "I'm scared it's going to feel cobbled together," he says.
Parenthetical Girls, including Bischoff, Amber W. Smith, and Paul Alcott, are known for sweetly gorgeous arrangements, combined with an over-the-top theatricality that expresses the less pleasant, occasionally depraved aspects of the human soul. Pennington is drawn to 1980s bands from the North of England (New Order, the Smiths, Pulp), and Privilege's most alluring songs—like the fifth EP's title track and "Careful Who You Dance With" from 2011's Privilege, Pt. III: Mend & Make Do EP—are infectious, excellently produced, new-wave anthems.
But it's not in Parenthetical Girls' nature to abandon concept entirely, and on this one, the idea of privilege is a thread throughout. "The English music that I respond to tends to be class-based," Pennington says. "I grew up fairly poor, so I have that class resentment. I enjoy positioning myself as the villain, conceiving of myself as a shitty, dismissive rich person of intense privilege."
Though timely in an election season, Pennington doesn't have a grudge to bear, even against the one percent. "I would hope that it doesn't look like I'm just cynically attacking the wealthy," he says, "because I'm a person of utter privilege—a straight white man—how much more privileged can I be?"