The Anniversary

Lonerism Turns 10

Modular
2012
Modular
2012

Kevin Parker thrives in isolation. For years at a time, the Tame Impala mastermind locks himself in a room with his gear and his imagination, endlessly tinkering with drum sounds and synth patches, until he emerges at last with another masterpiece of modern psychedelia. He is the epitome of the studio-rat introvert, a small and softspoken fellow from Perth less likely to articulate his feelings in conversation than to channel them into vibrant flashes of sonic color. Again and again, Parker’s tendency to map out his internal world into a holographic musical landscape has resulted in some of the most visionary and influential rock music of its era.

That music flourishes in large crowds. Parker’s private creations can thrill and inspire in solitude, beamed into your consciousness through headphones or the finest hi-fi speakers. But, perhaps counterintuitively, the stage might be Tame Impala’s native environment. Parker’s one-man recording project has become one of the defining rock bands of the modern festival scene; it is probably no coincidence that this band ascended at a time when that scene was booming, as each successive album more closely catered Tame Impala to ecumenical large-scale spaces. Parker’s music has increasingly sounded like a laser light show, and it translates incredibly well to the kind of venues where laser light shows pop off.

Ten years ago today, Parker released Lonerism, maybe his most pointedly insular record from the title on down. Four days ago, Tame Impala performed the album in full for thousands of adoring fans at Southern California’s Desert Daze festival. Somehow, this made perfect sense. Beyond the way all those crashing beats and careening melodies ingratiate themselves to wide open spaces, over the past decade Lonerism has morphed into something like classic rock. It was always classic rock in a way, albeit from an alternate timeline in which the Beatles stayed together, began draping their lysergic guitar rippers with proggy synths, and eventually replaced Ringo with Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips. This was the rare retro-futurism that felt more futuristic than retro. But when I say Lonerism has become classic rock, I mean it’s one of those albums that feels like it has always existed, on which even the deep cuts feel like standards.

InnerSpeaker, Tame Impala’s 2010 debut, introduced the band as gifted psych revivalists, channeling fuzzed-out, kaleidoscopic ’60s psych with melody and dynamism. Rather than a fossilized preservation of an ancient discipline, the album presented that old style as vibrantly alive and still fully able to evolve. That’s exactly what happened on Lonerism. “For me, the songs, the song structures, the sounds, everything is different,” Parker told Interview at the time. “Now there are a lot more instruments. More synthesizers. The guitars wait in the wings for a lot of the songs, and then suddenly come in right at the end. Each instrument is treated like a weapon. I would say it’s more orchestral, but that’s completely wanky [laughs] — orchestrated, that’s a better word.”

Orchestrated is exactly the right word for it. The Tame Impala of InnerSpeaker could pass for an extremely talented garage band. The Tame Impala of Lonerism felt less like a band than a psychedelic symphony, each song an array of moving pieces shifting in and out of view. At its most rocking, as on the self-descriptive stomper “Elephant,” it was still poppy enough to work as car commercial music. At its poppiest, as on the cavernous singalong “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” it still slapped hard. There were nasty riffs, like the harmonized lead that snakes its way through “Mind Mischief” and keyboard sounds of seemingly every vintage, like the faded organs and space-aged synths that sent “Enders Toi” into the stratosphere. Above all else, there were drums.

From the breathless pounding that sends us racing into Parker’s headspace on opener “Be Above It” to the tumbling cacophony that carries penultimate track “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” to the finish line, the drumming is Lonerism’s not-so-secret weapon. This is partly because Dave Fridmann, who helped key Tame Impala influence the Flaming Lips to develop their blown-out Soft Bulletin sound, mixed the album so that every last fill smacks you with visceral force. But the playing itself is revelatory. Song after song, the drum track is like a nonstop solo that coheres into a beat — controlled chaos that somehow never interferes with the song at hand and only steals the spotlight when Parker intends it to.

Whereas InnerSpeaker sounded analog at an atomic level, Lonerism made psych sound like an LCD screen, glowing and fluid. The music felt humongous, too, which engendered Tame Impala to a mainstream then dominated by gaudy EDM and gargantuan, increasingly druggy Kanye West event-rap. The sonic kinship might not have crossed Lonerism over in the sense of pop radio airplay and Hot 100 chart placement, but it ingratiated Tame Impala to the festival ecosystem (and to the parallel world of streaming playlists that sprung up throughout the decade). Parker would eventually work with rappers and pop stars, and Tame Impala’s music would increasingly embrace electronic dance music, but even on Lonerism the band had established a big-tent approach that was a perfect fit for the 2010s festival scene.

If Tame were psych’s emissaries to the modern mainstream, Desert Daze is more like their home turf. Although the fest has broadened its focus over the years, diversifying its lineups the way most successful events on this scale tend to, at baseline Desert Daze is a celebration of psychedelic rock. The beach alongside Lake Perris was strewn with trippy art installations, some of them lit up in neon colors after dark. Fellow headliners King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard and Beach House represent a spectrum of psychedelia from riffs to vibes, with Tame Impala literally and spiritually in the middle. Saturday’s gig felt special for that reason — even more so because Tame’s 2018 appearance was rained out after three songs. “I’ve thought about that like once a week for the last four years,” Parker remarked from the stage.

I saw Tame Impala earlier this year in Columbus at a concert that was almost derailed by rain as well. Speaking as someone who believes each of Parker’s four albums is equally great, on that soggy spring night I found much of the material from 2020’s The Slow Rush lacking in the live setting. On stage, the older songs simply hit harder than the ones where Parker ditched his guitar and sang over programmed beats. So although a greatest-hits encore with “Let It Happen” et al would have been nice — the set was Lonerism in full and Lonerism only — it was exciting to hear Tame Impala rocking out from beginning to end.

No matter what Parker might sing, it feels like he only goes forwards, forging new frontiers with each successive release. For one night only, he delved exclusively into his past. You might expect a band that’s still relevant to resent an exercise like this, putting their current work on hold to revisit prior glories. Early in the set, I wondered if Parker might feel that way, especially when he made a quip about how the audience already knew the setlist. Eventually he put those suspicions to bed: “This is all going way too fast for me,” he said late in the set. “I need to savor this moment.” He continued, “I hope you know this album Lonerism means a lot to me. It’s a big part of my life.” Many of us in the sea of humanity before him felt the same way.

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