Premature Evaluation: Tame Impala Currents
In the months-long lead-up to next week’s release of Tame Impala’s feverishly anticipated third album, Currents, there’s been a consistent story. This is not the Tame Impala you once knew or expected. This is not the out-of-time psych-rock band from the western reaches of Australia. This is a band that has bent, or totally abandoned, that sound in favor of disco and electronics and lite-funk. No more music made for shaggy-haired men doing hallucinogenics in a field someplace, but music for everyone to dance to. It’s mostly true. Where 2012’s Lonerism was a carefully-honed continuation and expansion of 2010’s Innerspeaker, Currents is the first Tame Impala record that departs in some way, even though it does still feel like the work of mastermind Kevin Parker. And while there’s something quaint in this narrative, it carries some weight in the particular case of Tame Impala. By 2015, the idea of the rock band “experimenting” by introducing electronic elements, or structures from any sort of dance-related genre, or pop influences that in another time would’ve been considered base, or whatever, in a rock sphere, is played out and illegible. Just about everything’s been revived and recontextualized. Parker isn’t exactly pioneering when he tells us that he decided to pursue a new direction when he drove around Los Angeles listening to the Bee Gees while high on shrooms.
None of that is to disparage what’s going on with Currents, because Currents just might be the best thing Parker’s released yet. All of this is to say: Nothing’s shocking about a psych-rock band discovering a bit of cocaine in their sound, too, to have thoughts of Studio 54 and rave tents mingling with the rock club. But there is something important about that evolution in the trajectory of Tame Impala, because the whole trajectory of Tame Impala has been weird and surprising from the start. Innerspeaker was deservedly acclaimed, but its heavily psychedelic sound spiked with tinges of krautrock positioned Tame Impala in a specific niche. That version of Tame Impala was the sort of project that would appeal to stoner dudes attracted to classic rock sounds; it could set them up to carve out a successful corner for themselves, but it wasn’t like they’d be headlining festivals off that record.
Then Lonerism happened, and I’m still confused about Lonerism happening. It found Parker harnessing those dense layers of synth textures and effects-laden guitars and vocals into tighter, more immediate and memorable songs. The obvious ones were “Elephant” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” the stuff you’d hear in commercials, or randomly at the mall, or in movies, or in the apartments of friends you knew didn’t necessarily follow music closely but had good enough taste that they caught onto something like this when it was becoming popular enough to come across their radar. Suddenly, this weird, druggy band, who once could’ve been a haven for rockists, had some kind of pop clout, some kind of ability to play the main stage at festivals and let their waves of blown-out watercolor sound blast over a crowd at sunset. Look, I’m the kind of person who is all about seeing songs like “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Music To Walk Home By” get that kind of audience, but it doesn’t make it any less weird that Tame Impala, of all contemporary rock bands, were the ones to make it happen, and so quickly. Even with the unshakeable grooves and hooks of Lonerism, there’s something about psychedelic music that comes off as too abstract to connect on that kind of universal level these days.
Parker was at a crossroads. He could’ve stayed in his wheelhouse, kept cranking out Lonerism after Lonerism, and he’d probably have a gorgeous, rewarding catalogue for those who want more than one Lonerism in their lives. It strikes me as a similar turning point to where My Morning Jacket was with Z: a thoroughly rock band has their breakthrough/brush with the indie mainstream and maybe even the mainstream as a whole, but what happens next? It would’ve been just as easy for Tame Impala to continue the way MMJ wound up going: Keep doing your thing, get a respectful amount of attention from the indie press, but really exist for a fan base fervent enough to keep you playing sizable venues and significantly-billed positions on the festival circuit, but not necessarily dominating the conversation at the same time, you know?
I would’ve taken another Lonerism. I would’ve been cool with that. But when “Let It Happen” and “‘Cause I’m A Man” became the first tastes of Currents, that’s when things got truly exciting. Even if the story of a rock band incorporating more electronic textures and more disco isn’t itself surprising, those songs let us know that Parker was the type of guy who wasn’t going to just keep churning out stuff we already knew he was good at. (The other thing it let us know is that he keeps airing his discomfort about “Elephant” defining Tame Impala.) “Let It Happen” and “‘Cause I’m A Man” are each an absolute titan of a song, each one of the best songs released this year. The surprising thing was less the moves Parker was making, but just how well they were working, and just how well it still slotted into the pre-established identity of Tame Impala. The surprising thing was, even after the highs reached on Lonerism, Parker could come swinging out of the gate with two tracks that could reasonably be argued to be his absolute best.
In the way of singles this strong, they can also make Currents a disorienting, maybe even disappointing listen at first. “Let It Happen” is something of a feint. In all the talk of dancefloor vibes, one thing that’s been lost is that this song is an outlier. (In terms of its mood and the way it moves, that is; even as it pulls from various styles, Currents boasts one of the most unified, perfect flows from point A to point B of any album in recent memory.) “Let It Happen” is a beast of an opener, easily Parker’s finest, but Currents’ mood is more mid-tempo-introspective from there on. Nothing pulses as insistently until, maybe, “The Less I Know The Better,” and that’s more of a strut compared to the rush of “Let It Happen.” “‘Cause I’m A Man” is more indicative of the pacing and headspace of the album as a whole, though that song sticks out, too. I’ll have to admit a personal bias here: Right now that’s one of my favorite songs of the year, and the reason it sticks out might be because of the sheer amount of times I’d listened to it before I had my hands on Currents. Still, outside of that, as far as mission statements go, these two songs are perfect for Currents — so perfect, so infectious, that they wind up filling the dual role of twin anchors holding down the journey through the record, while also being the two towers you have to get around while trying to get into the rest of the music here, while trying to develop a relationship with all the other worthwhile material Parker’s cooked up.
And, speaking of that perfect flow to Currents — yes, it’s perfect, but it also doesn’t make it easy for you to wade in whatsoever. This is an album that starts off with a seven minute behemoth, then drops you into five tracks of psyched-out interstitials and balladry. (Technically, “The Moment,” the third track, moves at a faster clip, but something about its blissed-out, somewhat distant chorus makes it feel less like the track to follow an opener like “Let It Happen,” and more like the kind of thing most bands would save for the third act.) Really, the most uncustomary thing about Currents is that it feels like its halves are reversed, starting (after “Let It Happen”) slow and meditative, building to a second half that delivers more direct punches, and even a track that probably could’ve been fine at home on Lonerism (“Reality In Motion”). Lonerism, while never less than very good, hit you over and over with its sharpest gems through the middle of the record, then flagged a bit at the end. Currents is all the more stunning as an album because it starts with one massive release, then starts a slowburn build to a second half that itself works between releases and retreats of varying intensity, culminating in “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” a closer with as much thematic weight — and sonic strength — to Currents’ identity as its opening counterpart in “Let It Happen.” One thing “Let It Happen” doesn’t let you know at all is that Parker somehow managed to go more pop while also crafting a record that goes closer to mood album territory than its breakthrough predecessor.
Of course, this is Tame Impala we’re talking about. Talk of small moments and restraint is all relative. Parker’s music is in perpetual bloom. Rarely is there a moment that isn’t drenched in production, that isn’t tailored with layers of sounds working together to get that transportive psychedelic vibe. Even mostly quieter, more contemplative tracks like “Yes, I’m Changing” and “Eventually” are almost impossibly dense. There are more dynamics, more push and pull, to Currents than the two other Tame Impala records, but compared to a lot of other records out there, it’s still an overwhelming listen. That’s one of the things that can be simultaneously challenging and immediately engaging about a Tame Impala record. There’s justso much. It’s pure, gratifying pleasure, a storm of the most impeccably curated sounds and decisions. Everything in its right place and all that, all in service of driving the natural chemicals in your body on overdrive. “Yes, I’m Changing” takes its time as the younger, more spaced-out brother to “‘Cause I’m A Man,” and “Past Life” is driven on spoken-word verses filtered out into robot voices, but it’s hard not to feel the endorphins coursing through you a little too strongly. There’s something about listening to a Tame Impala record the first few times that is akin to feeling too full from a good thing, from a too-sweet thing. While it might not be meant for any given afternoon, Parker’s commitment to filling his music with too much world-rupturing beauty part of what makes Tame Impala great.
Currents continues that, and once you sift through the change in style, the odd but ingenious pacing, the sheer boggling amount of musical information hitting your brain, you’re left with…one more swamp to traverse before Currents is done with you. That’s the emotional stuff. The reason Currents feels like Tame Impala’s best album is that Parker’s graduated from being just a great stylist. (There could’ve easily been emotional stuff baked into Innerspeaker and Lonerism, but who knows what the hell he was singing about on either of those records, and Parker’s personal life is paramount to the form and sound of Currents.) It’s hard to walk away from listening to this album without feeling like there’s so much more of him in here, even though it’s always been a solo endeavor. As Parker explained in our cover story, Currents isn’t about any one thing, but a lot of it is clearly at least rooted in Parker’s breakup with Melody Prochet of Melody’s Echo Chamber, in the experiences of changing and drifting out of a relationship. Stereotypically speaking, the genres Parker is drawing from here — psychedelia and dance music of all kinds — are associated with texture and sound and arrangements, not necessarily confessionals from the singer-songwriter end of the spectrum. It isn’t hard to look at Currents and see some of its messages — let it happen, go with the flow, let it go, leave it all behind — and notice they’re the kinds of things that are stock psychedelia in other hands. In Parker’s hands, in the context of his life, these thoughts weave in and out of questions like “Does it even fucking matter?” or meditations on how he’s the a new person but could make the same old mistakes.
That’s what makes the movement of Currents — the movement from the Tame Impala of old, the movement of the music itself — all the more substantial and impactful. The idea of an artist remaking themselves as a person in real-time, and the sounds that develop from them chasing that new self through the only means they know how. If you want another “Elephant,” this isn’t the Tame Impala record you wanted or expected. If you’d described it to me a few years back, I would’ve been curious, but I wouldn’t have known if it was the Tame Impala record I wanted or expected either. That’s what makes it. You get the sense that Parker knew how anticipated this record would be, and that he’d have to deliver amongst the tumult of his personal life. You get the sense that he had to negate some of the things that made him successful without burning it all down, to find that new place and that new self. It’s the sound of this one man working through a transition in his life through his art, through changing his art. We’ve been there before. But we’ll also be there again, because there’s something eternally emotive about it.
Currents is out 7/17 on Interscope.