This Piece About Parquet Courts’ Human Performance Will Make You Really Anxious

Ned Russin of Title Fight felt anxious about writing a piece about anxiety on a record that’s about anxiety.

I was sent an email from a publicist that included: 1) an advance download of Parquet Court’s new LP, Human Performance; 2) a digital press kit; and 3) a digital lyric sheet. The album was watermarked, so I was responsible for not leaking it. I was also responsible for writing a piece about this record, the first time I’ve ever had to do anything like this. I have a maximum of twelve hundred words to tell you about the record and I just wasted a bunch telling you that.

The digital press kit’s first paragraph states that Human Performance is an attempt at “picking apart the anxieties of modern life.” So now I’m feeling anxiety about writing a piece about anxiety on a record that’s about anxiety.

The album’s cover features a painting of a person lying on the floor; it’s hard to tell if the person’s hand is hiding their face or if they have actually just dissolved into a puddle. The record title evokes ideas of expectations, or even a standard, that humans are judged against. The track “One Man, No City” refutes Descartes (“’Cogito Ergo Sum’ people say/But think again ’cause I have no faith”) but offers no resolution. These are the explicit modern anxieties that Parquet Courts face — this sort of middle ground that we exist in of feeling that life is completely meaningless, but still striving for an unknown something.

The ways in which we are made to feel anxious through music, in my opinion, fall into culturally predetermined categories just as do the anxieties they represent. There is a reason why the unresolved tri-tone (think Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath”) is unsettling. Our entire musical culture has been built around avoiding this unresolved dissonance. This interval can actually make people feel uncomfortable, and while the effect might be slightly diluted in 2016 due to literal centuries of usage, it still has the same meaning within our culture.

Parquet Courts try to arouse feelings of anxiety in two ways: repetition and dissonance. Roughly three-quarters of the album falls in line with the former with tracks including “Dust,” “Paraphrased,” “Steady on My Mind” and “Berlin Got Blurry” repeating a part or two for three or four minutes. The vocals also seem stuck within the pattern of repetition and stay within a confined melodic register as well as a similar timbre throughout the album. This is how Parquet Courts want to remind us of anxiety. “I Was Just Here” repeats a single chord change thirty-two times in a row, almost the entirety of the song save for a quick eight-bar coda, and “Captive of the Sun” features monotonous Butthole Surfers-esque vocals.

There is a definition of insanity often referenced in pop culture: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I don’t think that insanity and anxiety are intrinsically linked, but the idea of repeating a single part to create feelings of anxiety is not considering this pop culture cliché. If we shouldn’t expect different results from repetition, then a musical part should come across no different the first time than it does the last. Once a part is repeated over and over again, it doesn’t create feelings of apprehension, but rather of annoyance. I don’t believe that simple use of repetition creates a heightened sense of anxiety. This is the anxiety of confinement.

In this essay, I am to relay my own personal feelings and my feelings about an album, but I have to do so under the word limit…or else. As much as I would like to ramble on and on about different modern anxieties and try things outside of my comfort zone (and trust me, I tried) I realized that it was easier and more effective to use a more traditional approach. So even though I try to free myself of this confinement, I am still stuck within these twelve hundred words and this review culture. And honestly, it’s not the end of the world. Human Performance’s repetition is supposed to make us feel trapped, but it’s this kind of trap that reminds us that we were already trapped to begin with; it is an acknowledgement with no solution. So it is kind of like a big “What’s the point?”

The dissonant approach to creating anxiety utilized by Parquet Courts is where these feelings actually come across well. “Keep It Even” modulates between major and minor keys for its verses and choruses. This kind of key change can be effective and slick, but PC do it in a sense that sounds more accidental than intentional. The lead-up note back into the major verse is unexpected and altogether strange — the perfect soundtrack for the unevenness the lyrics try to get across when they sing: “You gotta keep it even, even when you’re uptight/Even when you’re happy.”

This is the anxiety of choice, and this is the one that really gets me. For as anxious as I am about constant reminders of traditional conventions in writing or in song, they don’t even touch how terrible it is to sit here and think about how I have to submit this thing and have it put up on a website for public viewing. I’ve been trying to write for the Talkhouse since October but have been unable to make anything work due to certain logistics. In my head, I would have written pieces that would have been insightful and enjoyable. It is much easier to feel confident about something that only exists in your imagination. Now that I have an actual thing to write about a record that is actually coming out, it’s not so easy. Not only do I have my own expectations, there are also the expectations of others. People will judge not only my opinion but the way I express it. All of these things together create a tension within me that actually keeps me from opening the Word document to start editing or from typing the email to submit this. Did I even listen to the record correctly? How does a critic listen to music? This anxiety is a vicious cycle of effectiveness.

They may not sound the same, but Sonic Youth used these same dissonant and repetitive techniques successfully throughout their entire career. The difference between Sonic Youth’s anxiety and Parquet Court’s is that Sonic Youth seems more authentic because of their innovative and effective approach; they layered dissonance on top of repetition on top of varied vocals to create an actual experience of anxiety. While Parquet Courts seem to miss the mark in some regard due to their reliance on heavily repetitive music and vocals, they succeed in the unassuming moments that represent the anxieties they set out to evoke.

Ned Russin plays bass and sings in Title Fight and is currently attending Columbia University.

(Photo credit: Reid Haithcock)