Parquet Courts’ fifth studio album (their fourth if you don’t count Content Nausea, a lo-fi affair recorded by half the band and released under the malapropism Parkay Quarts) picks up exactly where their 2014 record, Sunbathing Animal, left off. Using naturalistic sound effects, including chirping birds and lightly rustling leaves, Human Performance starts by reminding us we’re still in the garden that was Sunbathing Animal’s final track. “Dust” is the record’s slightly amusing, pounding opener (non-digital release) about the unavoidability of the miniscule particles. Two thirds into the song, the band goes off the rails, and the pleasant sounds of nature are replaced with annoying car horns and highway chaos. The song is a metaphor for the entire record which finds the band stepping out of their comfort zone in an attempt to further establish their specific brand of stoner indie rock.
Andrew Savage’s haunting, bizarre poetry is in top form on the album’s title track as he sings, “it never leaves me, just visits less often, it isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften, without a coffin.” Unfortunately, the rest of the songs on the first half of Human Performance aren’t nearly as charming as the first two. The quirky, mindless “I Was Just Here” sounds as if it was written and recorded on the spot, the song’s last twenty seconds delivering a hastily slapped on punk rock punch line. The dynamic swings of “Paraphrased” aren’t enough for it to distinguish itself amongst the clutter, and its neighbor, “Captive of the Sun”, is equally forgettable. The record’s first half ends miserably with “Steady on my Mind”, an homage in style to The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” that adopts the ballad’s tambourine and tempo, but never captures the plaintive allure of Lou Reed’s classic.
Fortunately, the second half of Human Performance is much stronger than the first with the majority of songs distinguishing themselves quite nicely. All the familiar Parquet Courts staples are proudly on display here. “One Man, No City” takes advantage of the call and response technique the group has proven to have had success with in the past. The rousing “Berlin Got Blurry” finds Savage sounding like a young Elvis Costello. And with its matter-of-fact chorus and spiky guitar solo, “Keep It Even” is Human Performance’s finest moment. “Two Dead Cops” recalls any one of the band’s more energetic outings from previous releases, and while not great, is good enough. Finally, the dreamy and moody “It’s Gonna Happen” ends the set pleasantly enough, and although simple, is kept fittingly brief for a finale of this type.
Much like Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, Human Performance may go down for the time being as Parquet Courts’ most polarizing full-length release, its significance debated by hardcore fans for years to come. Perhaps it will only be with the addition of future releases that the album finds its proper place within the group’s discography and is ultimately vindicated. As it stands presently, however, Human Performance is an okay work with a mediocre first half that stands in stark contrast to its much improved second side.