Albums of 2016 (#9): Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 28 Nov 2016

Parquet Courts have released five records in five years – a feat achieved by few of their peers. Human Performance ticks all the right boxes

Earlier in the year, The Skinny asked Parquet Courts’ co-frontman Austin Brown to help summarise the Brooklyn-based band’s ever-evolving sound. It was probably a stupid question, and we got what we deserved: “I think to describe us as a particular genre, or in a way that’s specific, is wrong. But people also wind up using really vague terms that don’t apply, either. I don’t know! It’s not really my job...?”

He’s right, it’s not his job. It’s ours, so here goes. Brown, Andrew Savage, Sean Yeaton and Max Savage released their fifth studio album this year, if you include their rare 2011 debut American Specialties released on limited cassette, and 2014’s Content Nausea, misleadingly released under the Parkay Quarts misnomer. Over these five records, the band have tried out all manner of approaches to a set of similar goals – but Human Performance hits the highest watermark.

As Brown remembers it, the album was the result of an unusually long writing and recording process: “We took the amount of time that we did because we wanted to not repeat ourselves, and make it an important thing – that we are capable of evolving.” It paid off, too: that constant push for clarity in expression and a distillation of the noises that build Parquet Courts’ sound has come to define them more clearly than any specific genre tag. The four have thrashed out garage rock, dallied with spaghetti western, fired off punk, and last year’s largely instrumental EP Monastic Living offered up a brutal, brilliant soundscape. Human Performance knots together all those threads, with extra room built in for intentional experimentation.

“It was all about understanding that the first thought; the easiest path, wasn’t necessarily the best way to go.” Brown asserts, as he describes how they threw out any preconceptions of what the band “should” sound like. “Almost half the record, I feel like you could recognise as a new Parquet Courts record, and half of it comes from a different place entirely – those songs became really important,” he says, highlighting Captive of the Sun – a half rapped, half spoken-word track that encapsulates the band’s surrealist tendencies.

Elsewhere, Berlin Got Blurry is their poppiest, most (anti)hedonistic effort to date, One Man No City has surprisingly warm, spacious drum fills, Steady On My Mind is a ballad stripped of Parquet’s usual sarcasm, and Paraphrased is a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek exploration of thought explosions and chronic self-awareness: 'Sometimes I... draw definitions from my words / Sometimes I… can’t be repeated, I can’t be paraphrased, no!'

“Once you hear the vocals, whether it’s Andrew or myself, it reminds you that it’s us. Maybe you didn’t need to be reminded, but that’s what ties it all together for me. It’s the same voice, same perspective,” Brown decides. So perhaps it’s a critical fixation upon their band’s own existence that defines Parquet Courts? After all, an album titled Human Performance can’t avoid looming existential dread.

“A human performance is something that people do every day – there’s you, and then there’s the way that you perform the act of being yourself, and the way that you perform for people…” he attempts to explain. “Sometimes it can be sincere, sometimes a performance is a lie, and sometimes you don’t know.”

All we know, then, is this: Parquet Courts’ fifth, studio recorded LP Human Performance is a one of a kind. It details the shouts and sirens of New York City, the suffocating, unavoidable dust of daily life and digs with a pointed shovel behind your ribcage – without losing the weirdo humour and joy in the unexpected that are two of the only certain characteristics for a Parquet Courts album. Whatever they come up with next, you’ll know it when you hear it.