Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Tame Impala The Slow Rush

I was worried about this one. First came the waiting: Kevin Parker took half a decade to follow up Currents, the album that cemented Tame Impala as the biggest rock act on the modern festival scene. Then came the wincing: The first few songs Parker released from his new The Slow Rush did not connect in the same way Tame Impala’s advance singles had in the past. He seemed to have pushed his world-conquering psych-pop too far into the ether, conceding too much to the streaming era’s “chill beats to study to” gold rush and the cheeseball lite-FM impulses that coursed through Currents. As the new album approached, the critic and Stereogum contributor Patrick Lyons put it well: “In 2010, Tame Impala committed so hard to being a 1967 psych band that, just like most 1967 psych bands ten years down the road, they’re now a 1977 soft rock band.”

I shouldn’t have worried so much. It’s true that The Slow Rush continues Tame Impala’s trajectory away from lysergic guitar rippers and overt John Lennon worship toward airy vibes, dance beats, and an altogether different brand of psychedelia. It’s true that there’s no one epic on par with the festival-slaying “Let It Happen” and no equivalent to the crunching guitar stomp of “Elephant.” These 12 tracks do something new, albeit in service of Tame Impala’s signature sonic laser light show experience. We should expect as much after a decade of constant metamorphosis, in which Parker continually redefined his sound without ever losing its essence. Like the three that came before it, The Slow Rush is unmistakably a Tame Impala record and simultaneously very much its own thing. Experienced as a whole, that thing is extremely good.

Parker offers the skeleton key to The Slow Rush at the start of penultimate track “Glimmer.” An unidentified voice tells us, “It’s like, ‘Oh bass! Cool.’ You know how you make the bass better? Crank the bass up! You know how you make the kick drums better? Crank the bass up! It’s like, ‘No, really!'” These songs demonstrate how effective that advice can be. Sometimes it’s a graceful circular pattern like the one that ties together the immersive hall of mirrors “One More Year.” Sometimes it’s a funky, elaborate riff like the one on “Lost In Yesterday.” Smooth or fuzzed-out, organic or synthetic, the low end consistently drives these songs, lending shape and momentum to what could have been an impenetrable wall of textures.

Bass is just one of many vibrant elements levitating in the mix. Parker has always been a studio rat first and foremost, and the moving pieces he’s assembled this time around are as dazzling as ever. The sheer number of keyboard sounds is almost as astounding as what he does with them. Nearly every song sounds like magic, as if the arrangement is swirling to life with a wave of Parker’s finger. Although he supposedly diverged from Currents’ synthetic sound to incorporate more organic elements, the final product blends those components into an ever-rotating retro-futuristic kaleidoscope. Sometimes the aesthetic is psychedelic Studio 54, other times it’s a holographic spin on the arena-rock of the same era. Across the board, it grooves and it glows.

One way The Slow Rush flows naturally from what Parker was doing on Currents is that even more than Currents, it blurs the distinctions between rock and pop within the Tame Impala universe. But it’s not the kind of pop album Tame Impala fans might have feared when Parker proclaimed to Billboard, “I want to be a Max Martin,” or when he told GQ he was ready to fully embrace the celebrity lifestyle. Whatever aspirations he maintains for his side career producing for pop and rap superstars, his own music continues to be singular, inventive, and best experienced at album length.

Tame Impala albums are worlds to get lost in. They work equally well for locking into a trance and burning through an hour of work or gazing awestruck, mouth agape, intently focused on the complex beauty unfolding before you. The Slow Rush continues that zoning out/zeroing in dynamic, but in keeping with Parker’s new thematic fixations, it sends it spiraling across time and space, running a circuit from the hockey shed to the dance club to the astral plane and back. Many of the songs slap in their own right, but they function best as complementary scenes in the journey, reinforcing the sensation of displacement within the timeline. The dazed disco trip “Borderline” is a fascinating case study: Upon initial release, it felt limp and purposeless, like proof that Parker had lost himself in Hollywood excess. Within the album’s dream logic, it just hits different.

That said, “Borderline” is hardly the best The Slow Rush has to offer. “One More Year” welcomes you into the album’s headspace with immersive vocal shimmer, fervent acid-house piano, and a heavy club-ready beat. Despite sounding more like a ’60s rock song than anything else on the album, the haunted saga “Posthumous Forgiveness” blurs the difference between ’70s prog synths and ’10s EDM siren blares. With its huge organ blasts and even huger drums, the falsetto-strewn “Instant Destiny” is Supertramp by way of Late Registration, while “It Might Be Time” imagines a world where Foreigner sounds a lot more like The Soft Bulletin. “Breathe Deeper” approximates Midnite Vultures minus irony; I like to imagine it’s the music in the lounge next to the dance floor where you can lose yourself in brisk body-movers “Glimmer” and “Is It True.” Parker drops distortion bombs on the choruses of grand finale “One More Hour” and mid-album highlight “On Track,” resulting in a pair of power ballads built for making out in a Camaro with a flux capacitor.

Speaking of going back to the future: Whereas Parker was obsessed with transformation on Currents, from its title on down The Slow Rush is fixated on the passage of time. “A lot of the songs carry this idea of time passing, of seeing your life flash before your eyes, being able to see clearly your life from this point onwards,” Parker told the New York Times last spring. “I’m being swept by this notion of time passing. There’s something really intoxicating about it.” A maybe-unintended consequence is that it’s easy to hear The Slow Rush as an album about the excruciating toil of making The Slow Rush. Consider: “Strictly speaking, I’m still on track.” Also: “It might be time to face it / You ain’t as young as you used to be.” And what about: “Will I be known and loved? / Little closer, close enough / I’m a loser, loosen up / Set it free, must be tough.”

In truth, these are songs about the way falling in love makes you reconsider your own allotment of moments. About a year ago, Parker got married. This seems to have inspired intense refections on the impermanence of all things, the urgency of seizing the day, and the importance of moving on from that which mires you in the past. Especially coming from a self-professed loner like Parker, “One More Year” reads at once like lovestruck reverie and a panic attack about binding yourself to another person forever: “I never wanted any other way to spend our lives / I know we promised we’d be doing this until we die / And now I fear we might.” That leads directly into “Instant Destiny” and its head-rush visions: “We can get a home in Miami / Go and get married / Tattoo your name on my arm.” On “Breathe Deeper,” the euphoria continues: “If you need someone to tell you that you’re special / Believe me, I can.”

The epiphanies are not limited to the romantic realm. Parker, a retro enthusiast who has helped to map the sound of the future, decries nostalgia on “Lost In Yesterday.” He attempts to make peace with his dead father on “Posthumous Forgiveness.” And on “One More Hour” — the album’s closing bookend to go along with opener “One More Year” — he takes stock of his life so far. “Whatever I’ve done, I did it for love,” Parker sings in his signature arching falsetto. “I did it for fun / Couldn’t get enough / I did it for fame / But never for pride.” He seems to be negotiating with himself in real time, condemning and justifying his past choices.

Based on all the interpersonal conflict depicted on Tame Impala’s first three albums, he may well owe someone somewhere an apology. No such atonement will be necessary for his recorded output. There are many reasons for anxiety in this world — mistakes you can’t undo, crises you can’t foresee, the feeling of seconds slipping through your fingers like hourglass sand — but if anything The Slow Rush should alleviate Tame Impala fans’ concerns about Parker losing the plot. No qualifiers necessary: He’s still on track.

The Slow Rush is out 2/14 on Modular. Pre-order it here.