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Songs We Love: Parquet Courts, 'Human Performance'

Parquet Courts
Parquet Courts

Every successive release by Parquet Courts contains material that deals with some sort of entrenchment of the self against outside forces. Witness the dystopian realities of "Careers in Combat," the pressures of indecision and freedom described in "Stoned and Starving," the anxiety of productivity in "The More It Works," relationship strain in "Always Back in Town," the pile-up of urban living and class struggle in "Content Nausea." The title track of the band's newest album, Human Performance, continues along that trajectory to deliver Parquet Courts' most singular offering to date: a fragile and verbose tale of a relationship dissolved, its narrator in repose, pinned by inaction and some manner of the same opposing forces.

"Human Performance" falls in step with the more somber side of the Courts' catalog, but with a verse-chorus-verse structure that breaks ranks. Singer and guitarist Andrew Savage chronicles the breakup with measured verbosity, the tale of how it ended spelled out in clear, almost remorseful terms, taking its time before a throttling refrain repeats more abstract sentiments ("Shield like a house closing its doors, curved in the dark / Rinses of yours"). The song even finds time for a wistful Mellotron solo that matches the simple innocence of Jonathan Richman with the racing early rock horizons of Joe Meek's "Telstar."

Savage met with NPR to explain the story behind the song, and the truths behind the experience of playing in this band.

Can you tell us the story of how this song came to be?

I think in Parquet Courts there is a reoccurring theme of confinement and isolation. I've always been interested in incarceration: physical, spiritual and mental. Where Sunbathing Animal addresses the sensation of being trapped within a cycle, and Content Nausea speaks more about being hostage to rapid urban homogenization and modern violence, Human Performance focuses on a more on a more internal type of captivity. Maybe for that reason it's been called a more personal record, but I gotta say I might counter that it is probably more vulnerable, as each Parquet Courts record is personal to us.

The catalyst of the song "Human Performance" [reflects] my own flawed performance of humanity, and how it affects those around me. It directly mourns the loss of someone in my life, a party that knows the story and likely doesn't care for it to be retold, any more than the song has already done.

"Human Performance" takes on this mantle of dread from the beginning, with the narrator telling us the history of what happened. Then we hear about the paralysis that accompanies this separation, and finally the embodiment of their fear and regret, of the mistakes that they are forced to live with, broached with this chorus. The first thing that came to mind was the structural conceits of certain poems by Edgar Allan Poe, specifically "The Raven" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," in how they slowly build up to these reminders of what came before that eat at the soul — and certainly in the way you personalize the long-vacated romantic interest here so it hangs around like a ghost. Were you consciously trying to frame this story in such a classical manner, or did it just come naturally?

<em>Human Performance</em> (Rough Trade 2016)
/ Courtesy of the artist
<em>Human Performance</em> (Rough Trade 2016)

I hadn't thought of the Poe connection. Ultimately, the song is about living in the company of one's own shame. Perhaps it was the years spent as an altar boy that gave me an inclination toward repentance and atonement. I've never been a believer, but I can understand the appeal of faith, especially when it includes the promise of unconditional love and forgiveness. "Human Performance" is about the absence of that faith, and how haunting it is. The song has three choruses, so it felt natural to give it the sort of beginning-middle-end structure.

How do you bring a song like this to practice?

The song was brought to [producer Justin Pizzoferrato's] studio, Sonelab, in western Massachusetts. These sessions at Sonelab were essentially recorded practices, but one thing that we got from practices was this song. It changed a bit over time; we recorded, I believe, four different versions of it. In the end we used an earlier version. We worked it out the way any of our songs are. Everybody writes or learns a part, and we play it until we feel like we have something we can commit to tape.

So many Parquet Courts songs read as incredibly personal, which seems to intensify on the new record. What do you think is driving these realizations? Has being in this band fueled any of these experiences — made them better or worse?

Well, that's the idea, I think. Catharsis is likely my favorite quality of art. Purging. I don't think catharsis always orbits sadness and anger; it can also be a positive thing ... like sharing. Just getting something out of you that can no longer stay in. It's hard for me to say that being in a band like ours hasn't fueled most of my life experience, in some capacity. It's so much of who we are, that all roads lead directly to it.

Are there any ways in which you've changed as a person as a result of your involvement in this band?

Well, when you travel as much as we have, it's harder to be as ethnocentric; as an American, as a New Yorker, you realize a really bittersweet and beautiful type of insignificance. That's an important thing to remember, especially if you are a person who is inclined to interpret admiration as adoration. I would suggest that a mark of maturity – or rather, intelligence – is to take admiration with a grain of salt, and don't let its shadow darken the goals that you have and your ability to move forward. I would like to think it hasn't gone to my head, that I'm relatively humble. Fame is fleeting and illusory. People are real and fragile.

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