Like most of the best classic post-punk that they turn to for inspiration, Parquet Courts draw from everyday life for inspiration. This can mean tributes to the dull, mundane minutiae, as well as gut-wrenching matters of the heart. Human Performance, the Brooklyn quartet’s latest album, is the result of an entire year’s work, whereas previous albums were made in a matter of days or weeks. This unhurried approach has given them the opportunity, lyrically, to dwell on a variety of subject matter, but has also opened the floodgates, musically, in terms of styles and level of sophistication. The album is incredibly broad in its palette and focused in its approach.
Taking a cue from obvious heroes Talking Heads, Human Performance opens with a song called “Dust”. Fear of Music, the Heads’ third album, contained a variety of songs (and song titles) focused on a singular object or element: “Paper”, “Air”, “Electric Guitar”, “Drugs”. When Parquet Courts sing “Dust is everywhere – sweep”, there’s no hidden meaning. They’re singing a song about dust and what should be done with it.
The band alters between songs that are sung and songs with lyrics that are spoken or commanded, as if it’s the announcement of a mission statement. “Dust” seems to be a straightforward oath for germaphobes everywhere. “I Was Just Here,” with its Pere Ubu edges and slashing guitars, is both robotic and mesmerizing in its simplistic execution. “My keys don’t work / This knob don’t turn / My eyes feel like / Cigarette burns.” But then there are songs where lyrics are sweetly and more traditionally delivered, not unlike Angry Young Man-era Elvis Costello in his finer moments. “Those pristine days, I recall so fondly / So few are trials when a life isn’t lonely,” confesses singer/guitarist Andrew Savage on the title track. It’s a testament to the band’s versatility that this kind of heart-on-the-sleeve emotion meshes well with the chillier moments when they’re singing about being locked out of the house with burning retinas.
You can’t fault Parquet Courts for having great taste. Talking Heads inspirations continue throughout the album, particularly on “One Man, No City”. A simple guitar riff and loping bass line combine with a conga beat straight out of The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, and Savage’s nerdy singsong style is straight out of David Byrne 101. Likewise, the tuneless Lou Reed vocals and dramatic Maureen Tucker floor-tom rolls make “Steady on My Mind” sound so much like Velvet Underground in ballad mode that VU fans will likely do a double take when the track shows up on their Spotify playlist. “Captive of the Sun” includes slacker-rap vocals that conjure up Beck circa Mellow Gold.
None of this is meant to imply that Parquet Courts are blatant thieves. Far from it — if anything, it shows a band that is willing to use a variety of different sources to create a unique sound. Specific locations also provide a wealth of inspiration, as is the case with the excellent “Berlin Got Blurry”, a tribute to being a stranger in a strange town, complete with typically wordy, dense lyrics (the Elvis Costello comparisons apply here): “Döner wrapper done right / An extinguished crutch of a rollie inside yellow fingers / Nothing lasts but nearly everything lingers in life.” And later: “Funny how it charms you with that Teutonic frankness / Listen and it arms you with a new type of patience.” A brief, knotty guitar solo puts a bow on the whole thing.
If I find any fault with Human Performance, it’s that things start to get a bit uninspired toward the end. “Keep It Even” and “It’s Gonna Happen” are as close to the album gets to lazy throwaways, but the bulk of the songs are strong, well-written and full of energetic guitar-based performances.