I’ve written previously about sprezzatura—the hard labour undertaken in order to appear carelessly stylish—in relation to Spoon’s underappreciated 2020 LP, Transference. But Brooklyn immigrants Parquet Courts achieve what might be considered sprezzatura‘s opposite on their latest work, Human Performance: casually executed precision. The end-product resembles a cocktail of rock canon greats—Velvet Underground, The Clash, and The Kinks, primarily—but with a somewhat nihilistic worldview that’s cleverly updated for this millennials’ age. As Brooklyn transplants, and subterranean romantics, they bring an outsider’s perspective to the most happening scene in the most happening city on the most happening planet in the galaxy. Their surface scruffiness is shot through with a surprising amount of melodrama and trickery. And their facility with non sequiturs and Dadaist slogans lends their work a cheerily surreal swerve.
Around half the album is not musically groundbreaking, but the subject-matter is perceptive enough to sustain momentum. Tracks like “Berlin Got Blurry” and “Two Dead Cops” are catchy, insightful vignettes, with the latter song neatly subverting #BlackLivesMatter to focus on the murder of two officers, apparently in retaliation for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Walk past C’Mon Everybody and the complexities of heterogenous society are plain to see, Andrew Savage seems to be saying. “Paraphrased” adopts the timbres of Les Savy Fav, and that band’s vocal style too. Two late couplets in the song, “Sometimes my / Thoughts are infrequent explosions / Sometimes I / Drop definition from my words”, are portents of chaos. And at the very end of the album comes the fragile lament, “It’s Gonna Happen”, which brings to mind the closing tracks of albums by The Shins: the weary curlicues of acoustic guitar backed by soft explosions of white noise on “Those To Come”; the vanitas imagery on “Port Of Morrow”. Just as James Mercer suggested, on “A Comet Appears”, “Let’s carve my ageing face off / Fetch us a knife / Start with my eyes / Down so the lines / Form a grimacing smile”, so does Savage observe, “First plastic faces feel cold and / Uncommon”.
The remainder of Human Performance paint from more diverse palettes. Superficially, “Dust” is a rather Rolling Stones-like number, with gnarled guitar, occasional honky-tonk fills and rumbles of organ. But parsing the lyrics yields a subtext similar to that of Raymond Carver’s excellent short story, “Collectors”, in which a travelling vacuum-cleaner salesman demonstrates his product to a downtrodden Rust Belt gent and, in doing so, rakes over old coals to reveal the empty failure of the latter man’s life. Meanwhile the song’s final commands, “Suffocate, suffocate / Breathe! / Dust is everywhere / Sweep!”, suggests an urban home overcome with dust, bad memories, and baggage. Pitched against an accumulating mass of traffic, construction and other sounds of the city, the song (by this point consisting of little more than a reverberant squall of guitar reminiscent of Graham Coxon’s in the outro of “Beetlebum”) builds to a moment you think will lean into a final rousing rendition of the chorus. Instead, it collapses.
Straight after, the title-track shows considerable musical chops, initially directed into a chord progression pinched from “Coffee & TV”. Sean Yeaton’s fluid bass-guitar combines with Max Savage’s casually tossed-off drum fills, and it looks like the road will lead where it’s led. Then, in the chorus, impressionistic couplets (“Witness and know, fracture and hurt / Eyes in the fire, blink unrehearsed”) are fed into an accelerating reverb effect, with a method and effect akin to Talking Heads’ “Memories Can Wait”: disembodiment, dissociation, the personal becomes the political. Thereafter, The song refuses to follow a rational direction. After a weeping middle-eight on Mellotron which perfectly echoes the dissection of another failed relationship, the final chorus settles into a two-chord vamp that threatens to beat the listener into submission. At last, after twenty seconds, oblivion.
Other songs are weirder still. The loping, deranged crawl of “I Was Just Here”, like a less threatening take on Liars circa Sisterworld, adopts a scarecrow on a killer slant for its closing minute. That line about a favoured locals’ haunt shutting down, coming as it does a minute after the reference to Chinese fried rice, reflects the narrator’s bemused take on shifting fashions in his adopted hometown—a bit like Angus Andrew’s LA takedown on “The Overachievers”, a tale of bored eco-warriors with a “bio-car… [that] always sounded like a walrus / With ulcers”.
In the centre of the album is a trio of dark, dazzling beauties. First, “Captive Of The Sun” is as affecting a couple of minutes as you’ll hear this year, with left-field spoken-word poetry intoned with frightening intensity atop a castaway groove that limbers like Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac. The lyric, “A melody abandoned in the key to New York”, encapsulates not just the froideur of the song, but the band’s entire ‘outsider’ perspective. Then, “Steady On My Mind” pits a dusky Velvet Underground-style lament against Blur-esque timpani rolls (you know the ones I mean; the ones on those melancholy masterpieces like “This Is A Low”). Finally, the pinnacle. For those doubting Savage’s wrangling of language, “One Man No City” should arrest the flow of such thoughts. “‘Cogito ergo / Sum’, people say / But think again / ‘Cos I have no faith”, he quips early on. Later, in the same verse, “Outside I’ll check it out / There’s just a mirror / Look back now / An empty page” brims with the writer’s lot as depicted on Nick Cave’s “We Call Upon The Author”. Much of the song’s six-minute duration rolls along two chords, with syncopated bongos and vaguely Eastern guitar noodling (a nod to the mysticism of The Doors, perhaps) providing the accents. It’s already cemented a place in my pantheon of ‘Great songs about New York’, not least because it captures the wry reflection of a man who has left Nowheresville for Somewheresville, only to discover of the latter, “Still no-one lives there”.
There’s a seductive female voiceover a minute into “Already Dead”, curiously relegated to a digital-only bonus track which precedes the formal opener. The passage in question is woozy and worldsick where the rest of the song is rather jaunty. It’s somewhat akin to one of those mesmerising sequences in Mad Men, in which Don Draper’s unflappable persona is revealed to be a façade, and is shattered. On paper, the words resemble a snigger-worthy kōan: “Instrumental break / With your eyes open or your eyes closed / Take a moment to connect with where you are… Experience the show of sound / That is happening around you / Right now”. Set to the meandering, gently weeping arrangement, it’s a beautiful sigh of resignation—and two fingers to those who regard supposed slackers’ art to be devoid of emotions beyond “I’m stoned” and “I’m starving”.
Parquet Courts’ is a style also employed by Mac DeMarco, whose thrift-store effects pedals and home-recording setup improbably gave birth to a yacht-ready El Lay sound on Salad Days in 2014. DeMarco superficially gives the impression of caring little about Big Things, not least personal hygiene or respectability. His teeth are goofy; his hair, lank and greasy. At a gig a few years ago, he stuck a drumstick where the Sun fails to shine, whilst performing a rendition of U2’s “Beautiful Day”. But listen to Salad Days and you are rewarded with plangent odes to his long-time girlfriend, and plenty more profundity besides. Most recently, DeMarco honoured his late hero, Prince, with a gloriously unhinged (well, at least in its vocals) cover of “It’s Gonna Be Lonely”. The vibe is not dissimilar to that woozy bridge on “Already Dead”—and so the circle completes itself.
Ours is an era of slacktivism. Sign a petition here, tweet a humourless slogan there; absolve yourself of real responsibility. We pine for referendums which only divide us; meanwhile, we hate the politicians who are there to unite us. Albums like Human Performance and Salad Days serve as antidotes to the malaise. Their creators chill hard, true, but they also think harder, and in doing so oblige us to do the same about the society we live in, and the relationships we cling to within it.