Album of the Week: The Slow Rush — Tame Impala

Tame Impala, the brain-child of Australian-genius-producer Kevin Parker, grew to critical acclaim over the last decade due to the three seminal albums Currents, Lonerism, and InnerSpeaker. Now back after a five-year hiatus, The Slow Rush has a terrifying legacy to follow. Edward Smith tells us whether Parker has managed to get out from the shadow of Tame Impala’s previous three albums.

I saw Tame Impala live in June of 2018. It was a fantastic concert. I’d just sobered up enough to enjoy it properly, a set that acted as the greatest hit playlist from their first, and only three albums. Kevin Parker took the mic just before the last song of the night which was — okay, I genuinely can’t remember what it was — but that’s not the point. He became very candid and apologised to the audience about how long it was taking for the new album to come out. He said it was nearly done and should be out as quick as he could get it. He was far more emotional about it that he should have been, and way more than the audience was. Quite frankly, we were just happy that he was there.

Redefining the word ‘soon’, nearly two years after that Tame Impala’s fourth album, The Slow Rush, is here. The singles promised a deeper, more introspective record, but ultimately one that would be big on hooks and would maintain the energy from their first three records. ‘Lost In Yesterday’ and ‘Posthumous Forgiveness’ were real standouts to me, with a dreamy quality to both of them, but with infectious bass hooks which were complete ear-worms.

You can divide this album into two halves: the singles, ‘Instant Destiny’ and ‘One More Hour’ in one lane, and then the rest of them in another. The former tracks share more in common with Tame Impala’s older works and the latter best encapsulate the new feel of this album. It’s a more nocturnal, sleepier vibe. This album feels like Parker has seen the reputation the band has gained with the rock community and binned it in favour of something fresh. But it’s not a complete departure — the entire project feels like a dreamy sequel to ‘Currents’, given the singles’ sonic ties to their critically acclaimed 2015 album.

The singles on this album are brilliant. They stand up to repeat listens and the topic of the songs really packs a punch, such as the reflection over Parker’s late father on ‘Posthumous Forgiveness’ and how memories warp and distort in ‘Lost in Yesterday’. ‘Borderline’ doesn’t get enough credit for being such a fun and catchy song. With in-your-face synth lines that anchor the song and a brilliant vocal melody which could go head to head with anything on the first three albums, it’s one of Tame Impala’s best cuts since Currents. ‘It Might Be Time’ is a fun, introspective cut. It explains why Parker doesn’t feel like he is as good as he used to be, while showcasing exactly why he is. The explosive chorus throws in a hive of crazy, buzzing synths, before suddenly cutting off mid-chorus, and starts again with an extra thump of energy. These singles were a real reason to be excited about the record.

Kevin Parker has never been too difficult a lyricist to decipher. When there’s something he wants to say, he’ll spit it out. No mixed metaphors or waxing poetic. This works brilliantly for him, as Pitchfork pointed out, his music is filled with mantras like ‘Let it Happen’ and ‘Solitude is Bliss’. These calls to action (or inaction) fit with the directness of the music, the hard-hitting bass and drums. However, while the sloganeering is still here, especially on tracks ‘Lost in Yesterday’ or ‘It Might Be Time’, the straightforwardness of the lyricism doesn’t really meld properly with the complex instrumentation they’re set to. ‘One More Year’ has more creative lyrics which match the risk taken in the instrumentals, which would possibly be made better if his vocals were a tad more charismatic.

There are new influences woven throughout this project, the opener ‘One More Year’ has a touch of IDM in it, sounding like an oratorial Boards of Canada cut. The hook on ‘Breathe Deeper’ could be easily compared to ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ on Parker’s previous album. They both features strung out, meandering hooks. But what the latter does better than the former is that the instrumental is bloody punchy. You don’t worry about his mid-range, slightly comatose hook because the bass and drums do all the heavy lifting, and it’s a great dichotomy, sounding like a bored stoner falling asleep in the craziest club in the universe. ‘Breathe Deeper’ lacks this instrumental bite, leaving us with a washed-out song which does very little for an album which can do, and does do, so much. For a disco-tinged track, there’s not really much to dance to, as the mildly groovy beat is bogged down in muddy production.

It’s a frustrating album as all the instrumentals sound absolutely beautiful, but there’s not as much punch to Parker’s previous tracks. Still on the topic, ‘One More Year’ opens promisingly; the vocoded vocals have a strange quality, sounding like the start of a psychedelic rave, but misfire considerably when the drums fade in. The instrumental is interesting — you could pick it apart and find lots to like, but it always feels like there’s something missing as it's not worth more than the sum of its parts. The track is weakened by overproduction, so nothing sits perfectly in focus. The merits and demerits of this track bleed into all the other deep cuts on this album as well.

The track ‘Is It True’ has a great beat to it; the choppy bass riff and thundering percussion are, once more, promising. Though the vocals are a bit nondescript, the instrumentals make up for it. The solo at the end is a bit toothless, taking the wind out of the sails of this song, but other than that it’s a solid cut off of this album.

There’s a hilarious aside on the track ‘Glimmer’ where it turns out the key to making anything sound better is ‘turn the bass up’. The track itself is a dreamy dance cut with some funky guitar riffs. It’s a sweet little interlude before the end of the album, acting as a palette cleanser for The Slow Rush’s mixed plate.

I may sound like I would have just liked a copy of Currents or Lonerism, but that’s really not the case. Plenty of artists have managed consistently fantastic albums whilst changing up their sounds (see: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and To Pimp A Butterfly). Ultimately, Parker’s music sounds best when it’s pumped full of adrenaline. That’s why people usually state ‘Elephant’ or ‘Less I Know The Better’ as Tame Impala’s best tracks: they’re the closest the band gets to dancefloor fillers whilst maintaining a unique aesthetic.

While I keep gravitating towards the phrase ‘elevator music’, that is far too harsh a comparison. This is truly a deliberate move away from the adrenaline-filled work from half a decade ago. Yet, Tame Impala work best when they get over their social anxiety, put down the spliff, and go crazy over some 60s throwback beats. In this way, ‘One More Hour’ is a perfect closer, simmering just under the surface, carrying on the nocturnal vibe of the rest of the album. But every so often it explodes into riffing guitars and larger than life drums which makes the tension built up in the subtler sections truly worthwhile.

Their music is just as inventive and richly coloured as ever, but there is a real lack of payoff. This album is half re-invention, half same old mistakes. It explores lots of different styles, but never really goes hard enough to create something as ambitious as it could be. Kevin Parker is an absolute genius; this album is immaculate. But so are the other Tame Impala albums, so this one just happens to be less immaculate than those are. The comparisons between this project and his previous albums just makes any problems more glaring. I would definitely recommend it, just don’t expect it to change your life.

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