Album Review: Human Performance (2016) by Parquet Courts

I mainly seem to moan about albums I don’t like on this blog, so it’s a nice change when I get to talk about one I really like.

Parquet Courts’ third album has really grown on me as the year has progressed. I first listened to it a few months ago, not thinking too much of it, but now it’s easily one of my favourite albums of the year. At first only a few songs really stuck out to me (like ‘Dust’, which is a song that’s literally about, well, dust) though now I can appreciate that Human Performance is really stuffed to the brim with great songs. Maybe I’m just impressed that the band have managed to make seemingly mundane topics into pretty powerful songs – from the aforementioned ‘Dust’ to ‘I Was Just Here’, which is about a Chinese takeaway closing down.

Let’s start with the title track – my favourite on the album. It’s a break up song that almost entirely avoids being cheesy and cliché. It’s got a down to earth feel to it, and Andrew Savage’s usually abrasive vocals have a vulnerable feel to them. The delivery on the verses is very low-key and almost conversational, contrasting with the dark and depressing tone of the lyrics: ‘It never leaves me, just visits less often / It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften without a coffin’. The chorus gets a bit more dramatic, with an echoing effect being placed on Savage’s vocals and the instruments getting distorted. Heartbreak is a topic that’s been covered to death in music, but ‘Human Performance’ somehow manages to make it feel fresh.

‘I Was Just Here’ is another highlight, addressing how quickly things change in today’s society (a theme explored by most of the album’s songs). It has an off-kilter feel to it, with the lyrics being delivered in an almost robotic tone: ‘I’ll brush my teeth / That’s good for me’. The song explodes towards the end after the narrator realises that his favourite Chinese takeaway has closed down. It’s odd, but it works. ‘Berlin Got Blurry’ is also a favourite, being built around a jangly guitar riff that’s hard not to love. It’s got a lot of energy to it, and is probably one of the most accessible songs on the album.

Human Performance is one of those albums I love for the reasons other people probably hate it for. It’s weird. On first listen, some of the songs feel like they’re challenging the listener to turn it off. ‘Paraphrased’, for example, features some of the most over-the-top and ‘ugly’ vocals on the album. It sounds less like Savage is singing, and more like he’s just shouting at the listener. Opener ‘Dust’ similarly sounds like a bit of a challenge at first. I mean, it’s about dust, and as a result the lyrics are straight up ridiculous: ‘Dust is everywhere, sweep!’ But in the grand scheme of the album, it does a great job of setting up the themes that the rest of the tracks explore – such as the claustrophobic feel of modern city life.

One of the things I really love about this album is how rough it feels. Coming off the very clean and digital Starboy, Human Performance is refreshingly messy. The band don’t care much about making sure the listener has a ‘pleasant’ time listening to all of the songs on the album. Like I said before, ‘Paraphrased’ and its vocals are the best example of this, though you can also see it on tracks like ‘Two Dead Cops’ and ‘One Man No City’ (which is certain to annoy some people with its repetitiveness). However, there are a few moments of audio bliss, such as the digital only track ‘Already Dead’, which features an incredibly dreamy interlude.

Parquet Courts really knocked it out of the park with this album, and I’m excited to dive into their back catalogue and give their other two albums ago. The band try to do a lot of different things on this album, and most of them really work. If you’re looking for an album that’s going to challenge you a bit, I highly recommend this one.

Essential Songs: ‘Dust’, ‘Human Performance’, ‘Berlin Got Blurry’.

Book Review: The Gradual (2016) by Christopher Priest

The Gradual is a book with some good ideas that doesn’t really live up to its potential. It also has one of the best hooks I’ve read this year – with the first chapter teasing a time travel element to the story that doesn’t really surface until halfway through the book.

I’m a sucker for fantasy/science fiction, and so the anticipation of the time travel twist – and exactly how it would work in Christopher Priest’s world –  is part of what fuelled me through the first half of the book. So it kinda surprised me when the time travel element of the book ended up being dull and unsatisfying. It slowed the pace of the novel down to a crawl (ironic?), and hindered the second half of the book from resolving the events of the first half very well.

In fact, the lacklustre second half just made me realise how strong the first half of the novel really was. For me, this was the first time that the introduction of a fantastical element has been a novel’s turning point for the worse rather than the better.

The Gradual focuses on the life of Alesandro Sussken, a famed musician who lives in the fictional country of Glaund. Throughout his musical career he finds himself repeatedly drawn to a set of islands that reside off the coast of Glaund that are forbidden to residents of his country. However, one day, a life changing opportunity comes along and Sussken is given the chance to take part in a musical tour of the islands.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that though – tons of different story threads and an impressive number of characters. This description only skims the surface of the novel’s first half, but trust me when I say it’s engaging. Things move at a slow pace in the first half (not quite as slow as the second), but Priest manages to keep things interesting. He builds up a series of mysteries that keep the reader engaged – craving to find out where they’ll lead to. By jumping between the different mysteries regularly, Priest keeps the book engaging while not actually having to move along any of the storylines too much. It’s a style that works for the most part.

But again, the second half… It isn’t as awful as I might be making it out to be (and the final twenty or so pages are pretty moving), but Priest just seems to squander all the anticipation he builds up. More storylines are introduced, making the book feel overstuffed, and none of them really seem to go anywhere. Mysteries are stacked on top of mysteries, and in the end only a few of them are really resolved.

I’ve got nothing against ambiguity, but the way Priest uses it in The Gradual just rubs me up the wrong way. It seems like he leaves many of his storylines’ endings ambiguous because he knows that the solutions to his mysteries have no way of being half as interesting as the mysteries themselves.

There’s definitely a fantastic book in here, and it’s worth reading just for the parts where it really shines.

Album Review: Starboy (2016) by The Weeknd

I hadn’t really listened to much of The Weeknd before this album – well, only ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ really. R&B music has never been my sort of thing (not that I have anything against it) and so apart from the aforementioned very poppy single, he hasn’t really been on my radar.

Though he really did grab me with the lead single from this album, ‘Starboy’. With the popping Daft Punk synths and undeniably badass lyrics (you can’t hate ‘I’m a motherfucking Starboy’), it really got stuck in my head. The next single, ‘False Alarm’, while not as solid was still pretty good (though I seem to be alone in this opinion) and the last one, ‘I Feel It Coming’, pretty much sealed the deal on my interest.

So where to start with this one? How about, ‘No pop album needs to be 18 songs long?’ Though Starboy has many problems, perhaps the biggest is its length. Like the Bastille album I reviewed earlier this year, this album has no reason to be as long as it is. In fact, I can only think of a few albums that need to be over an hour long (This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem for example), and Starboy is not one of them… Especially because it talks about the same subjects over and over. Every song is pretty much about the same thing (Abel moans about his fame, has sex with some woman, rinse and repeat) and the quality with which the songs explore this idea varies.

So, the highlights… ‘Reminder’ is a solid chilled-out number with some great lyrics (especially Abel talking about winning the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award with a song about cocaine. ‘A Lonely Night’ has some mega-cheesy lyrics, but the undeniable grooviness of the track makes it forgivable. ‘True Colors’ stands out through being one of the quietest songs on the album – and also one of the few ones that can be described as ‘kinda romantic’. Other highlights include ‘Secrets’, ‘Party Monster’ and the ‘Stargirl – Interlude’, which acts as a nice change up from Abel’s vocals.

The two Daft Punk collabs that bookend the album are far and away the best tracks. I’ve said what I like about ‘Starboy’ already, and ‘I Feel It Coming’ won me over by being one of the most dancey (and dare I say sexy?) tracks on the album, also managing to weave in some pretty good lyrics. It’s one of those songs that just makes you want to dance, even if you’re horrible at dancing like me.

So now the bad. And this is where the album’s length comes in again – if Starboy was only 11 tracks long, it would be much easier to put up with the weaker tracks. But it isn’t. As a result, it’s easy to get fatigued by all the sub-par songs before you even reach the halfway point of the album.

The first downright bad song on Starboy is ‘Rockin’’ which has some of the cringiest lyrics on the album. Take the chorus for example: ‘I just want your body next to me / Because it brings me so much ecstasy / We can just be rockin’’. Jeez. The instrumentation on the song is pretty fun, if uninspiring, but it doesn’t save the song from coming across as a flimsy attempt at The Weeknd trying to recreate the success of ‘Can’t Feel My Face’.

‘Love to Lay’ suffers from similar problems, ‘Nothing Without You’ is a bland and unconvincing love song and ‘All I Know’ feels unnecessarily long and dragged out. Another one of the album’s weakest tracks is ‘Ordinary Life’, where Abel, once again, moans about his fame. In addition to this, the cringy and unnecessary opening just seem to make the album’s more romantic songs (like ‘Die For You’) incredibly unconvincing: ‘Heaven in a mouth, got a hell of a tongue / I can feel her teeth when I drive on a bump.’ Despite this album having plenty of good songs, it has more bad ones.

If you want an easy going, mostly fun, album to listen to in the car or to stick on for a party, Starboy is a pretty solid choice. Its bright spots save it from being completely terrible, though you might be better off listening to the highlights rather than the whole thing.

Essential Songs: ‘Starboy’, ‘Reminder’, ‘I Feel It Coming’.