“A Walking Contradiction”
A review of Tame Impala’s Currents (2015)
Call me a loser, but I prefer going to concerts alone. There’s no pressure to entertain company nor am I at the risk of losing them amongst the crowd (though it is tempting to do so at times). Perhaps social situations give me anxiety, but at the end of the day, I just want it to be me and the music. No stress, no responsibilities, no distractions.
My first concert by myself was this past September to see Tame Impala live in Berkeley at the Greek Theatre. I had bought the tickets last March in eager preparation since they are one of my favorite bands. My roommate introduced me to them while I was studying abroad in Paris last year and it soon became the soundtrack to one of my most transformative periods of my life. This album set the beat of my footsteps as I flâneur-ed around the streets of Paris, bobbing my head to the steady snaps and claps. I still vividly remember walking next the Seine and smoking a cigarette while “Nangs” blasted through my headphones for the first time. It infiltrated and at once flooded my ear, forcing me to stop walking and to just listen. I took a few drags in between the relentless, pulsating synths to help ground me. If I did not obey, I felt as if I would lose my balance. Acceptance didn’t sound like its intent. Its focus was to disorient.
When Kevin Parker finally came on stage, he lazily pushed his long hair behind his ear only to find it covering his face again seconds later. He climbed the stage poles and sang into the mic as the security guards hesitantly looked up from below. From first glance, Kevin Parker is the quintessential laid-back, messy rocker who likes to make equally relaxed, psychedelic songs. But a closer listen to Currents reveals an obsessive perfectionist hiding underneath this cool exterior and long mane of hair.
Though technically a “band,” Tame Impala is essentially Kevin Parker’s solo project. The unprecedented success of Innerspeaker (2010) and Lonerism (2012) brought 1960s psychedelia back onto the music scene. A new wave of psych rock bands formed and Parker received platinum album sales and even a Grammy nomination. In a Pitchfork interview, Parker divulges about performing for Coachella 2015: “For us, it’s a big joke that we’re playing these big shows… It’s completely absurd because we’re just us; I’m just fuckin’ Kevin. We’re just these fuckin’ idiots onstage. But recording is different…. Because, for me, recording music couldn’t be further from a joke.” Parker’s nonchalant demeanor is somewhat at odds with someone whose neuroticism cost $30,000 on an album cover concept that never even got used. However, it is this obsessive attention to detail that has pushed Tame Impala at the fore-front of not only the subculture of psychedelia, but also within pop culture and music. If Parker is a walking contradiction, Tame Impala’s self-proclaimed “pop” identity furthers deepens his complexity:
Parker seeks to demolish pre-conceived notions about all types of music, especially pop music — a forbidden genre that most Tame Impala fans shun and ridicule. However, in Currents, he reclaims both the genre and its name. If Tame Impala is self-proclaimed as “total pop,” then what else can fit into this genre? By stretching the limits of “pop” and destroying its negative stigmas along the way, Parker wants to convince wary fans and listeners that pop music, indeed, can be “cool,” too. In stark opposition to his image, music and fan base, Parker embraces making music for the masses: “If I could’ve had made more conventional pop song songs on this album, I would’ve.” By turning the mirror onto him and his fans, perhaps Parker wants to destroy the snobbery and elitism that come with the dismissal of “pop” as legitimate music. This is the most uncool album hipsters love.
It has been hinted that Parker’s split with Melody Prochet, a French singer from Melody’s Echo Chamber, was the creative catalyst for this album. Parker returned from Paris to his home in Perth, Australia to create Currents in total, blissful solitude. Though heartbreak runs throughout the album, its pains and struggles are not solely confined to a romantic context. Currents is also a dramatic breakup with the guitar, the principal source to Tame Impala’s signature fuzzy, muted sound. In contrast to the past two albums, Parker heavily relies on electronic synthesizers instead, manipulating artificial sounds to faintly resemble a once familiar instrument. But ultimately, Currents centers around perhaps the most difficult heartache one faces — the breakup with the self.
The first track is appropriately called, “Let It Happen,” immediately sucking us into a psychedelic vortex and journey to self-discovery. It ignores the traditional verse-chorus-verse template, and instead gracefully twists, transforms and morphs throughout the eight minutes. This blatant rebellion from tradition has been Tame Impala’s trademark since Innerspeaker and Lonerism. Parker in his signature “Parker-esque” style wrangles his guitar into sounding like a synth with a steady intro riff and sharp snaps that thematically return throughout the album. “Let It Happen” takes us on a quasi-religious experience of the internal battle that broods inside all of us. Change is inevitable as humans, but doubt and fear often reside nearby. The lyrics are set at the cusp of a transcendental transformation as Parker admits, “I can’t fight it much longer/Something’s trying to get out/And it’s never been closer.” The startling digital skip towards the end signifies the break and his eventual surrender to change. This transition buffers much longer than expected — a clever vehicle for confusing and throwing listeners off. In a Rolling Stone interview, Parker explains: “These days there’s all these ways to manipulate sound. As I was working on the song, I had this idea for this skipping bit. I loved the idea that someone would be listening to the song on their car radio and they’d think that the radio was broken or go, “Something’s not right.” I feel that’s a big part of what I do.” Eventually, the song comes back with deep, lush strings and the sharp snaps return, literally snapping us back to reality. A more self-assured Parker is back and confidently declares, “I will not vanish/You will not scare me.” He no longer fights the change and decides to just let it happen.
Throughout this journey, Parker intertwines various musical genres that seem like unlikely complements to psychedelic rock. There is a strong R&B vibe and rhythm in “The Less I Know the Better” and “Cause I’m a Man.” And you can hear the funk and disco influences best with “Disciples.” He fuses these genres together while still remaining true to Tame Impala’s psychedelic nature. The two instrumental tracks, “Gossip” and “Nangs” are essential transitional marks in between the album that instantly teleport us into another world. “Nangs,” or slang for nitrogen oxide, seems to sonically emulate the very act of inhaling NO2 in order to achieve a certain high, while “Gossip’s” pulsating synths mirror the sound of incessant talking and bullshit. These two dizzying tracks remind us of Parker’s penchant for disorienting and sucking listeners into another dimension.
Currents is more polished than Tame Impala’s past two works, but still demands us to sit and listen to the album in its chronological entirety. With each track, Parker meticulously layers his guitar and synths together with unorthodox beats and honest lyrics. This album solidifies his versatility as not only a producer, but also as a talented songwriter. The tracks naturally bleed into the next and evoke intense emotions of doubt, pain and hope — familiar feelings that come with necessary change and loss.
As a self-proclaimed “pop” album, Parker defies and blurs the lines that define genre — a belief and technique that mirrors itself onto the album’s musical production. It is easy to overlook Parker’s aesthetic and demeanor as cool nonchalance. But don’t let him fool you. This messy-looking guy from Perth is obsessive. Neurotic, even. Just listen to how much attention he put into the nuanced pitches and volume of the drums throughout Currents, most notably in the beginning of “Nangs” and throughout “Let It Happen.” More than a reward to careful listeners, it is Parker challenging and perfecting his craft for and against himself. Regardless of Currents’ numerous accolades and awards, Parker still is not satisfied… “I still think this album is completely unlistenable.”