There is nothing stoned or starving about Human Performance, the most deceptively straightforward album yet from the four very un-straightforward dudes in Parquet Courts. What feels cleaner, catchier, and ten steps closer to Jeff Tweedy (who contributed production and guitar) than anything else they’ve ever done, is actually their knottiest and least-grooving record yet. Always trying to throw banana peels at the press, Andrew Savage and Co. succeed better here than on 2015’s WTF-fest Monastic Living by following the band’s poppiest ever song (“Outside”) with its most Beefheart-ian (“I Was Just Here”), and both last a sub-consequential under-two minutes.
These Austin-Brooklyn transplants are always trying to shake off any kind of narrative precedent, whether they’re releasing two of their absolute best records wearing the Groucho glasses they call Parkay Quarts or an EP designed to short-circuit critics too young to remember Neil Young’s Arc. It’s outright exciting to bear witness to the most fame-conflicted band since Liars, and Savage is a hell of a lot better at songwriting than Angus Andrew. How to make the most daring dad-rock record you’ll hear in 2016? Answer: congas, which buttress the six-and-a-half-minute “One Man, One City” — a nice, dorky drone that breaks even and may be a grower, but isn’t likely to eclipse past requisite Courts epics like “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth,” “Instant Disassembly,” and “The More It Works.”
Elsewhere the band beefs up their sonic aura in more arresting ways, pitting the gently strummed “Steady on My Mind” against a backdrop of thunderous, malleted toms, and taking a flute detour in the middle of the emotionally and sonically crushing “Human Performance.” There’s a vibraphone solo on “Captive of the Sun” that offsets the militaristic drumming and Zack de la Rocha-esque cadence by which the band’s two singers utter/rap the title in unison. Even the lyrics allude to their sonic trajectory: “Dust is everywhere / Sweep!” is a pretty funny refrain to open the most cleaned-up thing these guys have done, just after the pretty much all-dust Monastic Living EP.
But unlike the four amazing top-to-bottom records this band fired up between 2013 and 2014 in various guises — Light Up Gold, Tally All the Things That You Broke, Sunbathing Animal, and Content Nausea — there are (faint) signs of mortality here. The second half of Human Performance sometimes threatens to get bogged down in such Tweedy cosigns as the genteel, rocking-chair-worthy “Keep It Even.” The Western swing of “Pathos Prairie” kind of resembles Deerhunter’s “Pensacola” but vaporizes pleasantly, where the latter grips the mechanical bull by the horns.
Side B is more than rescued by two of the most urgent and mature songs in this band’s catalog, though: the dreamily displaced “Berlin Got Blurry” (“No one’s falling for that nice-guy bulls**t”) and the unprecedentedly bracing “Two Dead Cops” (“Protect you is what they say / But point and shoot, is what they do / When shots are heard young lives are lost / Nobody cries in the ghetto for two dead cops”).
There’s a beating heart and unobstructed brain here for the current consciousness that proves once and for all they’re more Minutemen than Pavement. “Two Dead Cops” is the second Parquet Courts song to engage with law enforcement after 2013’s out-and-out rap song “He’s Seeing Paths,” where Savage portrayed a weed courier who gets busted. Unlike many of the frontmen to whom he’s compared, Savage actually sounds like a guy who’s been in cuffs, even if it was just for channeling his “want something they didn’t tell you to want” mode at a campus protest. What makes Human Performance a narrowly great record is that it bucks narrative. It’s not their most sensitive record or politically astute or least dissonant but all of these things — their most convincing performance as humans to date.