First Published on The Ripe.
Since Tame Impala first released their self-titled debut EP in 2008, it’s safe to say that they’ve secured for themselves a fairly formidable position on the international music stage. We’ve seen frontman Kevin Parker evolve from producing the classical ’70s lo-fi sounds of the first album, Innerspeaker, to tracks that toy with pop hooks and experimental beats in the later album, Lonerism. But never before have we seen Parker and his band submerge their sound into something so pop centric. And boy does he pull it off.
Tame Impala’s newest album, Currents, is an ambitious and unselfconscious break from the musical mould that brought them their success, diving head first and fearless into pop territory. Currents replaces guitar riffs with ’80s pop synths, includes heartfelt and personal lyrics, and dabbles in electronica more than any of the previous albums. If it wasn’t obvious before, Currents makes it definitively clear that Tame Impala are not a ‘rock band’. Rather, their sound just seems to continue to splinter and ripple across borders carried by the force of Parker’s unique and inspired musical vision.
The opening track, ‘Let It Happen‘, is the ideal entry point into the album, gently encouraging listeners to submit themselves to the music and allow their preconceptions to fall by the wayside. The plea to the audience to “let it happen” is an incredibly powerful message, and explores not only Parker’s acute awareness in preempting the album’s critical reception, but also reflects well on his overall musical philosophy. The familiarity of the electronic guitar riffs and heavier drums is cut into with the more prevalent synth beats and vocal distortion, giving the listener a taste of Tame Impala’s new direction from the start. ‘Let It Happen’ is purposefully disarming, and though it follows the pop template, it’s never close enough to sound like anything you’ve heard before.
To listeners who’ve followed Tame Impala’s progress closely, it would actually not come as too much of a surprise that Currents is so unashamedly pop-heavy. Parker’s predilection for pop sounds in his tracks has long been noted, and he even admitted to writing a full pop album for someone like Kylie Minogue to take on. What is different about Currents, however, is the role these pop elements take in each track. ‘Yes I’m Changing‘ is the perfect example of a song that celebrates pop synths and Parker’s changing sound. It is built around melancholic ’80s synths, sombre sounding vocals, and lines like “Yes I’m changing… and if you don’t think it’s a crime you can come along with me.” It is both a pop-style break-up song and a song about musical evolution. The combination of the upbeat, jingling tempo with the saccharine lyrics could easy make one think this track would steep too far into corny territory. Somehow, Parker manages to divert away from it being too buttery, and this may in part be due to the harder, darker guitar riffs that permeate the following track, ‘Eventually‘.
‘Eventually’ bursts open with grittier drumming and guitar sounds that are reminiscent of earlier hits like ‘Elephant‘, but quickly swings into gentler synth tones in the verses. The focus on chord progression and undulating vocal melodies make this song very groove-based, and Parker showcases the way in which pop can inform other genres in interesting and inventive ways. When he sings,= “I know just what I’ve got to do,” there really is no doubt that Parker is in full control of his musical vision, both as an active director but also a malleable subject open to different soundscapes.
The undercurrent of this album is devotion, not only to making music, but also to something more personal. Like other tracks, ‘The Less I Know the Better‘, frequently alludes to relationships, referencing “she” and quoting lines from what could be a potential argument. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Parker said that Tame Impala’s goal sonically and visually was “taking something that’s real and warping it until it’s weird.”
Much like the album art suggests, Parker is keen to make waves and distort what’s come before. It’s therefore no surprise that songs like ‘Past Life‘ rely so heavily on the distortion effect, using electronically deepened voices of innocuous commentary to create a song that is both disturbing yet beautiful.
‘‘Cause I’m A Man‘ is undoubtedly the most contentious track on the album, and misinterpretations of the meaning quickly sparked furore on social media after its initial release. But while some initial readings of the lyrics may have seemed anti-feminist or as though Parker was ‘mansplaining’ his way out of arguments, people soon realised that there’s actually a lot more going on with the song. Parker has an identifiably falsetto voice, and on this track in particular he uses vibrato which causes a quavering effect and strikingly contrasts with the chorus lyrics, “Cause I’m a man, woman.” It is this very contrast that Parker wanted to unpack. While singing “I’ll never be as strong as you,” and “You are the force I answer to,” he explores masculinity and love, showcasing the image of a man feeling vulnerable through the fine-tuned and complex pop hooks. Parker showing frailty definitely derails the stereotype of the male rock muso on the road, and also offers and personal glimpse into Parker’s relationship with gender and love.
‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes‘ finishes the album with Eastern riffs from what sounds like a sitar, and a slower, electronic base. Despite feeling like a “brand new person,” Parker contests that he continues to make the same mistakes, bringing the album full-circle but also suggesting that Parker is aware he still has a way to come in his personal maturation and musical career. Like any good coming of age story, a self-reflexive element is essential, and this song pieces together the album with a solid philosophical closing.
There is no doubt in my mind that Currents has already been granted automatic admission into many ‘best albums of 2015′ lists around the world. While the sounds are different, the tenants of nostalgia that Tame Impala are so known for remain intact, albeit this time from a different era. Parker is unapologetic yet self-aware, modest in the face of burgeoning fame, and has an admirably clear musical vision that he executes with restraint and skill. Perhaps changing the course of the musical current, Tame Impala’s newest album has thrown a pebble into the sedentary musical waters, spurring a ripple effect that will undoubtedly take hold of, inspire, and challenge listeners for many eras to come.