With 2012’s Light Up Gold, Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts were thrust into the garage rock limelight, and what followed was a feverish period of productivity: reissues, albums, EPs, a brief sojourn as the streamlined Parkay Quarts. At times, the frequency with which new material appeared painted the four-piece as rock’s foremost hoarders.
Fast forward through a relatively quiet period to new album Human Performance, and it feels like a spring clean by comparison, perhaps the most refined and singular vision of the band yet. This record can feel single-minded, but this is ultimately to its credit as life’s vaguer off-kilter moments emerge with clarity from the palette of modern paranoia the band work with.
Much of Human Performance evokes uncomfortable transitional feelings – of being adrift in a foreign city, of a relationship ending – the kind of states that make a heart uneasy and inert. There’s a focus on the bigger things said through minutiae, the “sinkful of dishes and no trouble believing that you are leaving”, and it’s this eye for life’s emotional detritus that means Parquet Courts effectively gnaw rather than thoughtlessly bite. That nagging feeling of amassing inescapable waste is present on opener Dust, with its catchy repetition of “dust is everywhere: sweep”. The track is introduced with a single guitar and ambient birdsong, but it soon hoovers up distortion, buzz, and honking car horns.
The fashionable decluttering of the likes of Marie Kondo has achieved nothing; no amount of serenity or cleanliness can be hermetically sealed from the New York noise, and the repetitive joy of a pristine has merely exposed the hidden pockets of dust elsewhere. There’s an edge of humour to the minimalist block colour artwork, then – a figure slumped on the floor of a bare room with a plant – a sense that streamlined decoration and calculated emptiness won’t stop the weight of the world leaving you prostrate on the floor.
With such a tendency towards unrelenting bathos and wry observation it might seem like Parquet Courts’ preference for a swift song is mercy from excessive exposure to the doldrums they mine, though they continue a trend by breaking up their brevity with the longer One Man, No City, and it’s a welcome opportunity to give a song breathing space, guitar solos, and ruminative jam-out percussion. Itches are scratched as expertly as old wounds are opened.
On titling the album Human Performance, Austin Brown noted a fear of his own insincerity, and though there’s still plenty of snappy offbeat humour (the jamais vu of I Was Just Here), there’s also candor to balance. Consequently, the band’s drollness never feels like deflection but rather a frank frame for the truth – think of Courtney Barnett’s dry, brutal confessionals or David Byrne’s weirdo persona yielding to the sublime sentimentality of Naive Melody. Parquet Courts’ oddball moments could easily come off as opaque performative shields concealing honest discourse, but instead they’re magnifying glasses for life’s micro-details.
There’s nothing here more honest than weary closer It’s Gonna Happen, a fitting end to an album about our endless performances for each other: “It’s gonna happen every time, rehearse this with me in mind”. It’s the peace the detoxifying life clean-ups should bring about, all gentle strumming and warm vocals, though naturally it’s about resignation to a routine act, a final sad hug that squeezes a little too painfully and brings you a little too close for comfort.
On Human Performance, life is a palimpsest for endless scribblings, erasures, and revisions – “nothing lasts but nearly everything lingers”. It is an album that claws gently at your ennui, playing on anxiety and stress and the claustrophobia of mental hoarding. Yet it’s far from a pleasureless experience, and therein lies the acrid charm of Parquet Courts’ growing accessibility, a vacuum that sucks you in and dumps you among the dust you tried to sweep away. And from the dunes of that dust emerge a band well in their stride.