Changing Sounds and Electric Sunsets: A Review of Tame Impala’s Currents

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Change is in the name for Tame Impala’s new Currents, crafting an album that, in 2015, somehow manages to sound like nothing else out there.

That certainly wasn’t the case for Kevin Parker’s musical project when he first started out, with 2010’s Innerspeaker sounded like an acid relapse from the late sixties, a Cream album left in the bottom of your dad’s box of records.

Meanwhile, the emotional peak of 2012’s Lonerism finds Kevin Parker declaring that “Everything is changing” interchanged with “Nothing ever changes.” This tension between ceaselessness and change (and the terrifying underbelly to both) is something Parker constantly struggles to understand on the album. It’s further reflected in the music: while it borrows sounds and sensibilities fitted for a 21st Century audience, that tension between late-sixties psychedelia and contemporary production never completely goes away.

But now there’s Currents: now Parker exclaims—with a manic, “EUREKA” kind of energy—that, actually, “Yes I’m Changing.” And just like Lonerism, this shifting philosophy is immediately reflected in the music. It’s 2015 here people: throw out your guitars, buy some synths; spend four months on a single dance beat, buy some more synths (buy a lot of goddamn synths—seriously.)

And I envy the listener that gets to experience this album completely fresh, without any idea or single stuck in their head—because if they did, they’d get hit with “Let it Happen.” And what a hit. The first four minutes, with a beat that whirpools around you, the scratchy shaky sounds recreates the come-up of a chemical: there’s something strange and new about this, but delicately familiar at the same time. And it could be scary, but there’s Parker just repeating ‘let it happen, let it happen,’ and you do—you do until it begins to make sense. And then the beat drops, and well wouldn’t ya know, you’re in a Daft Punk song! Electric arpeggios scaling in and out, as imminently danceable as “One More Time.” And finally, after a brief minute to catch your breath, he launches into the Bee Gees-gone-millennium, a chorus launched in the last beat.

It’s not the kind of song you ‘get’ the first listen. But in seven minutes, Parker rewrites what his band is all about, having that rare ability as a song to sound nothing like any of their other songs (including the rest of Currents) and yet be so unmistakably Tame Impala. It’s their best song.

And yet, Parker wasn’t sure until quite recently whether the album opener would find its way onto the LP at all. That’s a surprising trivia tidbit until you listen to the rest of an album that doesn’t sound like it at all. Well, except that last Bee Gee’s line: that’s still in there, though in a more brazenly disco form. From here on out, it’s all grooves and fuzz die—all sunset drives with the top down. Stylistically speaking, Parker’s sound hasn’t quite reached the present day yet: it’s probably around 1980, caught somewhere between Saturday Night Fever and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Parker’s still living in a past that probably never existed more often than not, but the third album shows him increasingly willing to experiment with EDM builds and beats.

That’s a shift that probably won’t settle easy with a lot of diehard fans. Where the first two albums relied on rambling, soul-exploring guitar rifts that could last as long as six minutes at a time, there’s barely a guitar to be heard in these fifty minutes. And if you still rely on old categorizations for indi music (even though you shouldn’t, by this point), then the first two albums would be as much rock albums as Currents is (so firmly) pop. In some ways it resembles Radiohead’s Kid A, if only by being the wrecking ball which crushes the reputation of the band that makes it. It’s a back-to-the-whiteboard kind of album.

With this pop easel, Parker demonstrates a new level of technique in his songwriting. He’d always had a knack for ear-scratching hooks (“Mind Mischief,” “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”), but that ability to craft a catchy song is given a new consistency here. The beats crafted are exquisite all the way along. I’d first listened to the album on a crowded plane, and even though it was 7 in the morning, I had a really hard time trying to keep still, the beats always catching up in different ways. Parker’s finally comfortable with ending a song after two minutes: he’s confident in letting the choruses do the work for him. This is probably most apparent on the album’s lead single “Cause I’m a Man,” a brazen, openly Michael throwback that owes its popularity entirely to its massive, anthemic chorus.

His lyrics show a similar departure from the last two albums. Tame Impala has been known for its abstract lyrics which, lost in the psychedelic haze it seems to drift in and out of, could be about a number of things at once. Every fan has a different reading for their favorite songs. Currents is the first time you begin to get a sense of the Life and Times of Kevin Parker. The album takes place a couple months after what was –very clearly—a pretty shitty break up, and the songs show him beginning to come to terms with how he fucked up and how he can move on. In some songs (“The Less I know the Better”) he even gives the names of different perpetrators—maybe they’re made up, but they still become characters in his soapbox situation. And for all his bitterness, there’s a conscious sense for Parker that he’s growing up in the process, growing old enough to be able to tell her that, eventually yes, they will get over it and move on. It’s an album of emotional maturation.

But the new frankness to his lyrics loses something in the process. Lonerism is one of the best albums for depicting the constant uncertainties of modern life: the electric fluctuations, the chemical swing to emotions when there’s so many people gadgets and drugs you can’t see straight anymore. It’s an album that tries to figure everything out and fails. Meanwhile, Currents sees him constantly assuring us that things are being figured out now—leading to the occasional crass line like “they say people never change but that’s bullshit/they do.” It leads to that scary question of, “Well God, does he have to be miserable to make great art?” But maybe it’s more that, if Parker feels the need to always be saying that he’s changing and moving on, maybe he’s having a hard time convincing himself?

That uncertainty finally begins to creep in on the final song, “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” Combining the funk fuzz of the new album with the wispy drum beats and darker keys more common to the old, Parker begins to question if this whole ‘new person’ business isn’t all just a bunch of words, if now he’s just hurting the girl with a smile on his face. And even though he cries out “I don’t care I’m in love,” it’s increasingly lost in the white noise of his own sound production (the best production of the album, combining Motown instrumentals with sounds that could be on a Boards of Canada album). Closing off the album, it looks backwards and beyond in a way that might signal true growth, musically and emotionally, in a way that goes beyond slogans and platitudes.

Because even though Currents falls short of the (very high) watermark of Lonerism, I’d argue that it’s this album which showcases the true staying power of Tame Impala. If Lonerism showed Parker’s power as a psychedelic craftsman, Currents shows his immense potential as a musician in general. With this one, Tame Impala accomplishes that holy grail of indi music: sounding nothing like your old stuff, but still sounding unmistakably like you. A few accomplish it (Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire), but most fail at breaking out of their established sound (Grizzly Bear, Beach House). The growth on this album makes me want to bet their next album will be better, maybe even than Lonerism. But until we find out, get out to the sun, sit back, and let the unbroken grooves of Currents soak over you in this summer stick.

4/5 Stars

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