Album Of The Week: Parquet Courts Human Performance
Parquet Courts are a band of sloppily-dressed white dudes who play pointed, angular guitar rock and whose sung-spoken lyrics are written from a wry, erudite, and sometimes detached point of view. So that means they will always have to deal with the Pavement comparison. It’ll trail after them like vulture shadows until they finally expire. It’s not their fault. It’s not our fault, either. It’s just a thing that happens. As someone who really likes Parquet Courts and can’t stand Pavement, this has persistently driven me nuts for, what, four years now? And so I’m hoping that Human Performance is the moment that comparison finally goes away. It won’t, but it should. After all, Pavement, lyrically, were about referential inside-joke opacity. Parquet Courts, historically, have had some of that in them, too. But Human Performance is the moment where they jump to another level, where they find powerful and particular ways to express weirdly universal sentiments that you don’t often hear in music. For that reason alone, they’re already as close to, say, the Modern Lovers as they ever were to Pavement. Can we all try throwing around that comparison every time we talk about Parquet Courts, for a change?
Consider, for example, “Berlin Got Blurry,” the best of the early songs that the band released from the album and maybe just straight-up the best song on the album. It’s a song about wandering by yourself in a foreign country, seizing onto the weird little cultural differences rather than the big and obvious ones, feeling more alone that you’ve ever felt. Frontman Andrew Savage, in that flat and bored deadpan, sings the entire thing in second person, Bright Lights, Big City-style. And he nails the feeling of floating unmoored through the world: “Cell phone service, it’s not that expensive / But that takes commitment, and you just don’t have it / Feels so effortless to be a stranger / But feeling foreign’s such a lonely habit.” It’s a song about a specific circumstance I’ve never experienced; I’ve never even been to Berlin. But there’s a feeling it evokes. It brings me back to the bored, underemployed summer I spent in New York City when I was 20. I spent those months just wandering around the city by myself — going to matinee movies, taking the Staten Island Ferry over and over — or watching Law & Order: SVU reruns. I was just waiting around, disconnected from every one I knew and trying not to spend money, and I still think about that feeling all the time. They changed the particulars, but Parquet Courts rendered that feeling in a way that just cuts.
It goes on from there. Parquet Courts’ great subject might be the way living in big late-capitalist cities can turn existential stress into straight-up dread, and that’s here: “Skull-shaking cadence of the J train rolls / The rhythm of defeat, repeating like a pulse.” There’s even one song, “Two Dead Cops,” about rabid distrust for police, about fantasies of finding evidence planted on you, and about not even feeling bad when they get murdered: “Nobody cries in the ghetto for two dead cops.” (Imagine Malkmus singing that!) More than that, though, Human Performance seems to be a breakup album, an album about figuring out who you are when your life gets turned upside-down: “Ashtray is full, bottle is empty / No music plays and nothing moves without drifting into a memory.” This is a time-honored subject, but Parquet Courts consistently find fresh, sideways perspectives on it, even when it comes to something as simple as the physical discomfort that so often accompanies heartache and confusion: “My eyes feel like cigarette burns.”
But if there’s doubt and dread in the lyrics, there’s none in the music. Parquet Courts have always tended to knock their records out in a week or two, but they spent a full year on this one, recording in a few different studios in a few different states — including Wilco’s Chicago loft, where Jeff Tweedy added some extra guitar to a couple of songs. Still, this is the most effortless they’ve ever sounded. If you listen to Light Up Gold and Human Performance back-to-back, it’s almost enough to give you whiplash. When we met Parquet Courts a few years ago, they were confident but also nervous and scrappy. These days, there’s a swagger to the way they play. They’ve toured hard, constantly, and they’ve got that road-honed sense of interplay. They pull off new tricks, like the twangy Duane Eddy guitar line on “Berlin Got Blurry,” content in the knowledge that they’re totally going to pull it off. They don’t sound like a young rock band anymore. They sound like a rock band who have figured out what the fuck they’re doing.
There are still some real flights of nervousness on Human Performance, like the surly math-rocker “I Was Just Here,” the one song on the album that I skip. More often, though, they’re in that rare zone where they’re trying things — half-rapped cadences on “Captives Of The Sun,” pretty murmuring on “Steady On My Mind” — and those things are working out. Every Parquet Courts album has to have one long song that hovers around the seven-minute mark, and Human Performance has the best one yet. “One Man, No City” is the best one, in part, because it comes from a place of fun, with a sparkly riff and a general brightness. But this is also a song where they throw in little things — funky conga-drum counter-rhythms, a guitar solo that sounds like a sitar raga — that they never would’ve even thought to attempt a year or two ago. Parquet Courts were pretty great when we first heard them. But they’re still getting better, and Human Performance is the most assured thing they’ve done yet. It’s almost scary to consider where they could go from here.
Human Performance is out 4/8 on Rough Trade.
Other albums of note out this week:
• M83’s cheese-addled post-breakthrough freakout album Junk.
• Deftones’ soaringly sensitive return Gore.
• Frightened Rabbit’s triumphantly wracked Painting Of A Panic Attack.
• Tim Hecker’s crackling, sputtering Love Streams.
• Woods’ warm, sunny folk-psych seance Sun Eater In The River Of Life.
• Colin Stetson’s Gorecki reimagining SORROW.
• Future Of The Left’s withering postpunk return The Peace & Truce Of Future Of The Left.
• The Dandy Warhols’ swaggering psych LP Distortland.
• J-Zone’s sardonic comedy-rap slapper Fish-N-Grits.
• Peach’s omnivorous self-titled punk rock album.
• Polonium’s tense, pounding noise-rocker Seraphim.
• Samiyam’s mostly-instrumental rap record Animals Have Feelings.
• Former Everything But The Girl member Ben Watt’s solo move Fever Dream.
• In The End His Voice Will Be The Sound Of Paper, Jenny Hval’s album with Kim Myhr and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra.
• Ronnie Spector’s British Invasion tribute album English Heart.
• Palace Of Worms’ schizophrenic black metaller The Ladder.
• Kweku Collins’ impressionist rap debut Nat Love.
• Gregor’s eccentric home recording Thoughts & Faults.
• Hayes Carll’s subdued country rambler Lovers And Leavers.
• Summer Flake’s warm, fuzzy debut Hello Friends.
• Niki And The Dove’s churning Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now.
• Har Mar Superstar’s Julian Casablancas-endorsed Best Summer Ever.
• WODE’s adrenalized self-titled black metaller.
• Geryon’s progressive death metaller The Wound And The Bow.
• Beak>’s soundtrack to the movie Couple In A Hole.
• Tenement’s stray-tracks collection Bruised Music, Vol. 2.
• Morly’s Something More Holy EP.
• A Place to Bury Strangers’ Kicking Out The Jams EP.
• You Fucking Die’s debut EP.
• HEIDEMANN’s Detectives EP.