Parquet Courts Human Performance

[Rough Trade; 2016]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: anti-punk, cleaning house
Others: Guided By Voices, Link Wray, Maestros & Dipsos, The Gun Club, Television, The Soft Boys

Don’t let the haters fool you: there isn’t another band out there quite like Parquet Courts. In a time when the idea of a gang-of-four has never felt less exciting, Parquet Courts have been doing serious work to fold the image of punk music back unto itself, turning out its posturing front for all to see and then skidding that surface between self-important chin-stroking and filthy self-indulgence — all on a bed of inspiring, first-rate guitar history. It’s skeptical music, but above everything, it’s honest, having fun with its own concepts of shallowness without being afraid to get confused over what it even takes to be human these days. For all their conceptual jib-jab, Parquet Courts are a refreshingly accessible band, writing astonishingly simple riffs that embody that feeling you get when you’re way too stoned to possibly comprehend the book you’re trying to read, but enjoying the pure act of gazing at the pages anyway.

Human Performance, however, is a new kind of Parquet Courts album. Anyone who’s been following the group has witnessed the sheer rush of their breakout release Light Up Gold gradually take a backseat to their more simmering thought streams, their initial poise becoming slowly mangled and undone from Sunbathing Animal to Content Nausea to Monastic Living. But Human Performance is where the entropy finally makes a home for itself. The songs on this album — upon first listening — appear muddled, inchoate, and slightly unsure, with little trace of the tightly coiled hooks littering their discography up to this point. Where before tracks like “Master Of My Craft” and “Pretty Machines” hit home immediately upon impact, listening to the singles for Human Performance on their own gives the impression of a band becoming strung out, stranded on their own self-constructed island of Texas myths and Brooklyn nights.

But the incredible thing about Human Performance as a whole is that, even though it does nothing to dispel this notion, it actually uncovers deeper dimensions to the quartet’s songwriting philosophies. These tracks are a significant touch more subtle than what we’ve heard from the group so far, yet each possesses its own character and value in the grand scheme of the story, revealing a band with a patient approach to punk whose emotional bite is no less potent. The meandering melodies on songs like “Human Performance” and “Outside” evoke feelings of questioning and sprawl (even as the latter track clocks in well under the two-minute mark), and though the riffs that underpin “Paraphrased” and “Two Dead Cops” might initially seem underdeveloped, the manner in which Savage, Brown, and co. lay out their four-man attack packs a heavy punch that seeps in deep on spins two, three, and ten. There’s a real confusion at the heart of these tracks — none more literal than on the tone poem “I Was Just Here” — and the band’s sensibility seems desperately close to reaching some grand epiphany or new beginning before ultimately becoming swept back into the current of miserable daily minutiae. Though Human Performance is built on a lusher palette than we’re used to from Parquet Courts (the sepia strums of the title track, the cosmic vibraphone on “Captive of the Sun,” the vaudeville keyboards punctuating “Berlin Got Blurry”), it’s their least outlandish vision of punk yet, following the rabbit hole of their last few releases to a strange, troubled, but rewarding new habitat of 21st-century uncertainty.

Perhaps in tending to their own twisted synapses, Parquet Courts have escaped the emotional distance so prevalent in their music until now. This isn’t to say that their exploration of detachment hasn’t been sincere in its own right, but Human Performance is the sound of a group turning its gaze inward, losing faith in their grasp on the world, doing their best just to keep things real, even if it means losing their cool. After firing off a checklist of call-and-response definitions on “Paraphrased,” Savage takes a bridge to admit that “Sometimes my thoughts are infrequent explosions/ Sometimes I drop definitions from my words/ Sometimes my speech recalls moments of violence/ Sometimes I can’t be repeated, I can’t be paraphrased.” Parquet Courts are confessing to their own messiness and, in doing so, have delivered their most fully realized project to date: a disillusioned work whose allure reaches far beyond the instruments being strummed on it.

Links: Parquet Courts

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