Review: Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Lorenzo Edwards-Jones is pleasantly surprised by Parquet Courts' latest release

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“Socrates died in the fucking gutter…”

Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold (2012), ‘Master of My Craft’.

Now, I’m not saying that all lyrics today should sound like Shakespeare. In fact, I challenge anyone to try and fit one of his sonnets into a pop song without sounding like, well, a bit of a twat. But, as far as lyrical brilliance is concerned, indie-rock band Parquet Courts won’t be making it onto university syllabuses any time soon. Or at least, that is, until Human Performance came along.

In their latest album, the band show just how much they have come on since the failure of their last release. What was a slovenly crew of college dropouts has, for the most part, turned into a group of mature and sophisticated musicians, with influences as varied as the Ramones and The Velvet Underground coming together to create their most wide-ranging musical effort yet. 

Not everything has changed. Lead singer Andrew Savage, for one, still hasn’t lost his penchant for making almost anything rhyme. Call it a questionable grasp of the English language, his wordplay still makes for entertaining listening. The man who was “reading ingredients” as he asked himself “should I eat this” in 2012 hit ‘Stoned and Starving’ is at it again in the opener ‘Dust’, in which said substance “comes through the window, comes through the floor/comes through the roof and comes through the door” with a rhythmical insistence worthy of Dr. Seuss himself. Germaphobes will be up in arms at the equally poetic chorus, “Dust is everywhere, dust is everywhere, sweet, sweet”. Sweet.

This said, Savage’s lyrical playfulness doesn’t rob Human Performance of its emotional power, and one wonders whether the humour in the A-side tracks is Savage’s way of escaping from the heart-break and self-delusion that afflict him elsewhere in the album. The title track that follows sees him at his most complex, mourning over the fragility of human relationships and a darkness whose “grip” won’t “soften without a coffin”, whilst ‘Steady on My Mind’ takes after The Velvet Underground’s mellower and more heart-stopping tracks ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Some Kind of Love’. The tone shifts back again with the simple but catchy two-chord riff of ‘One Man No City’, where Savage’s portrayal of urban loneliness reaches its climax in a 3-minute instrumental trance, with lead guitar battling against an increasingly demonic backdrop of african drums, bass and eerie SFX.

The album then gets political with ‘Two Dead Cops’, a storytelling tour de force about social injustice in Savage’s home district of Brooklyn. The story, which pits the insignificant death of two policemen against countless civilian mortality, is a perfect match for Savage’s vocals as, driven by Sean Yeaton’s romping bass line, they denounce in all their rasping urgency why “When shots are heard/When lives are lost/Nobody cares in the ghetto”.

‘It’s Gonna Happen’, the final track, is a somewhat disappointing ending to the album, whilst songs like ‘I Was Just Here’ flow too awkwardly to provide any sort of musical catch. Nonetheless, Human Performance shows the band at new heights. There are failed experiments, granted. But most work to great effect. The band’s voice is more nuanced, their instrumental base more polished. If Parquet Courts learn from their few mistakes and continue to blend their new-found maturity with the raw power that has worked for them before, one wonders what they could accomplish next.