Parquet Courts have quietly been refining their sound since 2014’s Sunbathing Animal, deviating from the breakneck punk of Light Up Gold and Tally All The Things You Broke EP to somewhere in the middle of mid-tempo cowpunk or stretched out indie-rock such as ‘Pretty Machines’ from 2014’s criminally underrated Content Nausea. As you might have guessed if you didn’t know already, Parquet Courts are a prolific band. With every release they press new buttons, sometimes coming across gold like Content Nausea and other times not-so-good projects such as last years’ Monastic Living EP. This new album has already been greeted as the new great step forward for Parquet Courts. And it is. They still dabble in highfalutin concepts (their frontman Andrew Savage has talked about his thoughts on ‘human performance’ in several interviews) but their sound has opened up into a more nuanced performance, with keys, other vocalists, synths and sometimes even less violent guitar-playing. In fact, the two bands that Parquet Courts now resemble is a punkier R.E.M. or the Velvet Underground (Compare ‘Steady On My Mind’ with ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’). It’s a perfect little niche to find themselves in, still writing the occasional furious punk song but then slotting a laid-back pop song into the mix. Parquet Courts have found their home, even if they might not stay there long.
The singles boded well for Human Performance. ‘Dust’ was a shuffling rocker with the introduction of keys and a minimalistic portrait of crushing anxiety and claustrophobia, something Parquet Courts are well versed in at this point. Then ‘Berlin Got Blurry’ came along, all spaghetti-western and stream-of-consciousness ramblings by Savage, as he rifles through typically wordy lyrics such as ‘Döner wrapper done right / An extinguished crutch of a rollie inside yellow fingers’, but the verse ending of ‘Berlin got blurry and my heart started hurting for you’ was an unusually direct show of emotion from Savage. Finally, ‘Human Performance’ arrived, with further examples of Savage opening up further with lyrics like ‘I told you I loved you / Did I even deserve it when you returned it’. ‘Human Performance’, the song, drifts between his confessions of love and him playing at a gig, which ties in with the theme of ‘human performance’. Savage previously questioned whether performing can pass as authentic expression if it isn’t a faithful representation of the person performing. This thinking is translated into his love life, where he sings ‘phantom affection gives a human performance’ as if he’s tricking himself into performing a natural human routine – relationships and so on – in order to convince himself he’s living a normal life. If in previous albums, Savage and co-songwriter Austin Brown have explored anxiety, then this is a completely new chapter. They don’t announce it as directly as they did before, but it’s implicitly there.
There’s instrumental expansion as well as lyrical expansion. Parquet Courts have been known for their punky side, but never before have they incorporated so much extra stuff into their sound. Often those extra instruments is what makes the song memorable, for example ‘Dust’ is the organ/keys song (it also features Jeff Tweedy on guitar as a bonus), ‘One Man No City’ is the bongos song and ‘Captive Of The Sun’ is the creepy glockenspiel song, or at least that’s what we think it is; it could easily be a synth. ‘Captive Of The Sun’ gets the award for best song on Human Performance because it combines Parquet Courts’ knack for words with instrumental oddities and sounds that they haven’t played with before. Austin Brown, who takes on vocal duties on more songs than ever, spits out rapid-fire surreal imagery like ‘Half-tone harmony from the sewer’ and ‘Trucks pave the roads with amphetamine salt’. After Content Nausea, which had songs that lived and breathed New York, ‘Captive Of The Sun’ could’ve slotted straight onto that mini-LP. Many would describe the sights of New York, but Brown turns it into a clattering orchestra of sounds from the sewer, the smashing of glass, the train, dogs barking. It’s uplifting and uneasy at the same time, as Brown opens with ‘My misophonia’, or his hatred of sound.
Human Performance is the best Parquet Courts album without a doubt. It’s another tightly written and performed album, but this time there’s more variation in the performance, a twist on their typical subject matter and more input from bassist Sean Yeaton, who sings on ‘I Was Just Here’, and Brown, who is credited with playing the car* in the credits. It’s more of a band and less of Andrew Savage running the show. That’s not to say he’s not the frontman anymore, he’s just pulling the strings behind the scenes and organising the sound of the album. Just when the band were beginning to sound a little tired and stale, they’ve vastly improved upon the experimentation of Content Nausea and Monastic Living into a perfect sweet spot upon which their older material is buried into the fibres of the new songs, but there’s so much more to offer here from the repetitive nature of Sunbathing Animal. They can only go upwards from here.
Funnel Recommends: Human Performance / Captive Of The Sun / Berlin Got Blurry
*Correction: It is Andrew Savage who ‘plays’ the car.