The Aussie psych-rock genius moves on
“Everything flows and nothing stays.” So said Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who might’ve found a good place for his most famous maxim in song had there been any shoegazer bands in 500 BC. In any case, the notion is a discomfiting, possibly even scary one, for anyone who may struggle to handle all this flux.
That attitude may have been closer to what Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker was feeling when he wrote “Apocalypse Dreams” on 2012’s Lonerism, a work whose prevailing state of blissed-out exuberance often belied the anxieties simmering underneath. “Everything is changing and there’s nothing I can do,” he sang, sounding rather less accepting of the situation than Heraclitus did. “My world is turning pages while I’m just sitting here.”
Tame Impala have hardly been what anyone would consider a stationary object, but nevertheless, their rate of change is rather more dramatic on Currents. Parker returns to themes of personal transformation here again and again – indeed, they’re plain as day in the lyrics and even the titles of songs like “The Moment”, “Reality In Motion” and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”. As Parker sings in “Yes, I’m Changing” – his already breathy falsetto sounding even dreamier than before – “Yes, I’m changing, yes, I’m gone/Yes, I’m older, yes, I’m moving on/And if you don’t think it’s a crime, you can come along with me.”
Though the song is directed at a lover who may soon be left behind, the last phrase in the chorus suggests that the 29-year-old Australian understands the challenge that Currents poses to some fans. It’s the third and by far the gentlest album that Parker has made under the moniker of Tame Impala, a one-man recording project that has done double duty as a five-man, globe-conquering, synapse-scrambling psychedelic-rock juggernaut over the last five years.
Anyone who has experienced this burlier incarnation of the group – captured in full flight on 2014’s Live Versions – may be especially startled by the music they find here. The celestial sound of layers upon layers of vintage synths has largely replaced Parker’s displays of six-string wizardry and chunky riffage on 2010’s Innerspeaker and its acclaimed follow-up. The previously aggressive swirls and surges have abated, with Parker now filling the space with hazy, Gallic grooves that bear a distinct air of Air.
And whereas the woolliest moments of Innerspeaker and Lonerism conjured a fantasy of what The Beatles may have sounded like if they ever shared a bill with Pink Floyd at the UFO Club, Currents dives deeper into later, less hip reference points, like the more limpid balladry of 10cc and Supertramp, the latter of which Parker has repeatedly cited as one of his very favourite bands.
Close students of Parker’s art may have anticipated this radical shift given the orientation of other recordings, however, like the mix of ‘60s yé-yé, jangly psych and dance-pop he developed with former girlfriend Melody Prochet for her band Melody’s Echo Chamber, or his playful and soulful contributions to Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special. (Parker devotees may also be less worried that the travelling incarnation of Tame Impala has undergone a similarly dramatic overhaul – beefier live renditions of recent songs suggest they fit very well into the existing repertoire.)
What Currents most strongly shares with its two predecessors is Parker’s ability to pursue a wide variety of musical tangents without losing the through-line. That exploratory bent comes most prominently to the fore in “Let It Happen”. Unfolding over the course of almost eight minutes, Currents’ opening track marries a woozy slice of sun-dazed pop to a robotic dance groove that ought to be derailed by the unexpected sound akin to a CD skipping halfway through. Instead, it culminates in some heretofore never-attempted hybrid of Air’s “Sexy Girl”, Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” and Steve Stevens’ riff on Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”. Somehow it all still sounds like Tame Impala. That’s largely because of Parker’s flair for melody and his multi-tracked and eminently unruffled vocal style, which is likely to draw fewer comparisons to John Lennon’s thanks to the significant change in musical context.
One of several songs to surface in the months before Currents’ release, “Eventually” has a similarly unlikely yet exquisitely integrated combination of elements, its sense of blissed-out drift being accentuated rather than disrupted by the rhythmic swagger or the squiggly, pitch-bent note used as a final flourish. “The Moment”, “Yes, I’m Changing” and “The Less I Know The Better” see Parker continue his efforts to create music that matches the most sumptuous pleasures that could be found on an AM radio dial circa 1975, albeit with the occasional day-glo smear or other rude sonic intrusion that the likes of Seals and Croft would’ve never allowed to muck up such pristine surfaces.
Parker throws several more curveballs on “Past Life”, Currents’ oddest track yet the one that may best demonstrate its synthesis of the airily delicate and the gloriously askew. As a narrator with an electronically distorted voice relates the tale of an ordinary day that takes a turn toward the uncanny due to an encounter with “a lover in a past life”, Parker ladles a loping groove with effects until it threatens to collapse under the weight. Yet this suitably daft cousin to Daft Punk’s “Giorgio By Moroder” (or possibly The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds”) still has room for another gorgeous vocal refrain by Parker.
Currents’ first single as well as Tame Impala’s first stab at a boudoir-ready slow jam, “Cause I’m A Man” demonstrates the buttery goodness that Parker achieves by embracing the softest qualities of his voice and his wider musical sensibility. Evoking the minimalist soul-pop of Shuggie Otis’ “Aht Uh Mi Head”, Parker offers a not-terribly-adequate apology on behalf of his often lunk-headed gender. “Cause I’m a man, woman/Don’t always think before I do,” he croons before lamenting “it’s the only answer I’ve got for you.” Though he also confesses that “my weakness is the source of all my pride”, the sly attitude demonstrated here is a needed counterbalance to lyrics elsewhere on the album that have the faint ring of a new-age guide to self-actualisation.
“Love Paranoia” also offers an unexpected degree of bite, the song’s 10cc-calibre prettiness being undercut by Parker’s description of the anxieties released alongside the ecstasies of a romantic fling. “If only I could read your mind, I’d be fine,” he notes before conceding how all the emotional turbulence brings out “the worst in me”. More familiar hang-ups return in “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”, though the narrator here works harder to fight off the voices of negativity that swell up from deeper in the mix.
As he is in so many other moments here, Parker is too keen to revel in the freedoms he’s created to ever let himself feel defeated. Currents may be equally exhilarating to any listener willing to adjust to Tame Impala’s new paradigm, which – what with new paradigms being as ephemeral as everything else in this life – you may be wise to savour here in the present.
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