When the Brooklyn group Parquet Courts released their mammoth breakthrough single “Stoned and Starving” in 2012, they revived a great tradition of deceptively simple slacker-rock perfected by ’90s indie-rock heroes Pavement and ’70s punk icons Television. Their thrilling tunes felt like they’d fly off the rails of an elevated Bed-Stuy train track at any moment, but beneath the noise and distortion, singer-guitarist Andrew Savage proved himself to be a sharp observer of post-collegiate millennials struggling to adapt to ever-gentrifying city life. They kept up that pace with 2013’s Light Up Gold and 2014’s Sunbathing Animal, but on their third album, Human Performance, the band has returned with their sharpest and most diverse set of songs yet.
On Animal, Parquet Courts hinted that change was coming by nestling sincere ballads (“Instant Disassembly,” “Dear Ramona”) among the distorted squall. And Human Performance finds the quartet pushing their songwriting boundaries to new and often brilliant extremes. The album’s six-minute centerpiece, “One Man, No City,” is a groovy ode to city living that sounds like the Velvet Underground somehow got their hands on a copy of the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.” And the left-turns don’t stop there. “Steady on My Mind,” penned by Savage’s bandmate Austin Brown, is a lovesick ballad that’s as thoughtful and delicate as “Stoned and Starving” was edgy and bold. Elsewhere, “Berlin Got Blurry” mixes a shambling Television-style guitar-and-bass groove with some twang from the Ennio Morricone playbook.
But Parquet Courts haven’t abandoned twitchy rock nuggets and whip-smart lyricism. Singer-guitarist Andrew Savage cracks wise on the propulsive rocker “Outside” — “My fault lies on my tongue / And I take it holy as a last right” — and tackles socio-political ills on the vicious “Two Dead Cops,” about two New York police officers who were the victims of a widely publicized 2014 double murder in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. And, with its allusions to the “skull-shakin’ cadence of the J train,” the eerie “Captive of the Sun” proves they’re a pre-eminent voice for young New Yorkers who can’t settle permanently because the rent is too damn high.
Nearly every cut on Human Performance — from the quaking paranoia of the album opener “Dust” to the brooding resignation of the closer “It’s Gonna Happen” — finds Parquet Courts exploring fresh sounds and reaching new heights in the process. For anyone trapped in a decrepit walk-up with a six-pack of Pabst and an eviction notice, it’s essential.