The Year The Mainstream Discovered Tame Impala
Last year, Kevin Parker released Currents, his third album under the Tame Impala moniker. It was the moment where he moved beyond the dense psych-rock of Innerspeaker and Lonerism and embraced a shimmering, humid mix of dance and pop and rock. In our cover story about the making of the album, he described its lead single/mission statement, “Let It Happen,” as initiating “this kind of grand transition of someone.” That was an apt description in general for the version of Tame Impala that would develop after Currents came out. Aside from the stylistic departures, Currents also laid the groundwork for Parker capitalizing on the Lonerism festival jams “Elephant” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” to attain a different level of clout than any of us would’ve reasonably expected earlier on in Tame Impala’s existence.
This year, the music world had such an overflow of excellent, invigorating work, major surprise releases, and tragic, surprising deaths that the significant releases of 2015 can already feel like ancient history. That wasn’t the case with Currents. Tame Impala was on the festival circuit playing these songs all year, now sitting at that second- or third-tier headliner status. Some of these songs had become part of the atmosphere — by the time I heard “Let It Happen” repeatedly blaring from the outdoor speaker of an Italian restaurant in Reykjavik this November, I was already used to encountering that, or “The Less I Know The Better,” or “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” in all manner of public spaces. They’d garnered some degree of ubiquity, even if Tame Impala still isn’t a household pop name. The buzz behind Currents proved legitimate: There wasn’t a new Tame Impala album this year, and yet Parker and his music seemed ever-present. It was a year where the man who once could’ve remained an insular space-rocker from the distant edge of Australia fully entered the mainstream.
There was that Snapchat commercial featuring “The Less I Know The Better,” following on the heels of a 2015 Apple Watch commercial that had also used the song. That in of itself isn’t new for Tame Impala — “Elephant” found prominence partially due to its appearance in a spot for the Blackberry Z10. And this century is littered with examples of indie artists licensing a song to an Apple or car commercial; sometimes it’s one step in an upwards career trajectory, sometimes it’s just a random blip in an artist’s life. For Parker, it’s surprisingly proved to be the former, signaling the wider proliferation of Tama Impala.
It’s expected for Wayne Coyne to love Tame Impala. Less so for, say, John Mayer to Instagram the cover of Currents and write, “Best record of the past two or three years. Proven many times over in my mind.” (He then compared it to “Radiohead 1996″ and, amusingly, “Coldplay 2003,” before concluding with “Phoenix 2008.”) Mayer wasn’t the only pop star enamored with Tame Impala. Rihanna recorded a very, very faithful cover of Currents closer “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” for Anti — the biggest stylistic departure was renaming it “Same Ol’ Mistakes” — and just as it served as a crucial conclusion to the emotional journey of Currents, it too became an important linchpin in Rihanna’s most personal album. (Meanwhile, Tame Impala’s original also appeared in a teaser for Atlanta, one of the best and most popular new TV shows of the year.)
Elsewhere, you had the Brit-rock doofiness of Last Shadow Puppets’ special Tame Impala song at the 2016 iteration of Poland’s Open’er Festival. Alex Turner — a rock artist with the stature of a pop star compared to many of his contemporaries working in the idiom — sang a seemingly improvised paean to the upcoming headliners, offering up gems like “There’s a storm brewing/ In the form of Tame Impala” before proclaiming, “Kevin Parker controls the weather system.” (Not an unfair statement about much of Tame Impala’s music, if we’re being honest.)
Shout-outs and licensing are one thing, but the bigger deal, and the bigger left-turn, is how Parker has started to have a direct interaction with the pop world. Rihanna covering a band that sounds like the evolution of a ’70s stoner-rock dream is a start, an opening salvo. Then you have Yasiin Bey (FKA Mos Def) previewing a Tame Impala collaboration for one of his final pre-retirement albums. Then you have an honest-to-God collaboration between Parker and Lady Gaga on “Perfect Illusion,” the lead single from her new album Joanne. The video features Parker in the maelstrom dance sequences, drumming as Gaga pulls back his head by the hair.
There was some precedent for this, but it seemed like an outlier at the time. On Mark Ronson’s 2015 album Uptown Special — the one with “Uptown Funk!,” which also seems like ancient history after 2016 — the British producer enlisted Parker for three tracks. Two of them, “Summer Breaking” and “Leaving Los Feliz,” were plays on late ’70s lite-funk and yacht-rock that fit into the album’s overall hybridized retro aesthetic. The best of them was “Daffodils,” a psych-funk track possessing an irresistible, unhurried swagger. Like “Let It Happen,” this is another piece of Parker’s 2015 output that still lingers. At least in my experience, it’s one of those songs you just seem to hear in random places, without any given logic — that subtle ubiquity a song can have without having been a major hit like, say, “Uptown Funk!” Released earlier in 2015, Uptown Special offered a prelude to the disco-fied Tame Impala we were about to meet on Currents. It’s also what eventually lead to “Perfect Illusion”; Ronson’s the guy who got Parker involved with Gaga.
Parker’s new endeavors are part of a general movement we’ve seen in recent times, with indie-rockers alighting from their niche to try their hand at a bigger canvas. There were little grey areas, like Ariel Rechtshaid straddling the pop and alternative worlds with his 2013 trilogy of albums by HAIM, Sky Ferreira, and Vampire Weekend. Fast-forward a bit, and that’s blossomed into Rostam departing Vampire Weekend to pursue pop music full-time, and Ezra Koenig, James Blake, Jack White, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Father John Misty, and Animal Collective all, somehow, being tied to Lemonade. The latter might’ve been a bit of an extreme reaction — more “Let’s avoid another ‘Blurred Lines’ lawsuit” than “Look at all the inspiration we took from the indie world” — but it still marks a moment where indie artists’ names are mingling with the biggest stars on the planet. Like Parker, after all, Josh Tillman is actually contributing songwriting to these albums – he helped with “Hold Up” on Lemonade, and “Sinner’s Prayer” and “Come To Mama” on Joanne, right there alongside “Perfect Illusion.”
What’s notable about this is that, once upon a time, rock stars and singer-songwriters could’ve been major pop forces on their own. Once upon a time, they would’ve been the more critically respected artists, and their choosing to work with a pop artist could’ve legitimated the latter. Now, it’s something like the other way around. An artist like Tame Impala, for as unlikely a rise as they’ve had on their own, are still not going to totally crack the mainstream on their own. But here’s another path: Make your spaced-out synth-drenched coke-rock comedown album, then work with some pop stars, and a career of some notoriety comes into focus.
It’s specifically notable with Parker, because Tame Impala seemed destined to be the band always playing the late-night tents at Bonnaroo. They might’ve been beloved, they might’ve had a cult following. They might’ve been very successful for their sphere, and they might’ve kept churning out woozy ear-candy like Lonerism. And that would’ve been great! But there’s something potentially more interesting on the horizon for Parker now. In a recent interview, he talked of Tame Impala taking a bit of a hiatus. “What comes next is very much a blank canvas,” he said, “but a blank canvas in a good way — I’ve got all the paint!” He’s also spoken about further collaborations he wouldn’t name. Even after Uptown Special and Currents, this is a surprise: the idea of a Tame Impala recognized by pop stars, and Parker as an in-demand co-writer. Who knows whether that’s the path Parker will follow, or what might come of it. But given the creative bounty he’s already reaped from the unexpected detours in his career, the idea of a future version of Parker known for guesting on rap songs or taking a pop single further out into the unknown is just as exciting as hearing him let loose a mind-warping solo as the sun sets over a festival crowd.